When offering parenting presentations, one of the issues that frequently comes up concerns questions about how to teach children “responsibility.” In reality, this is extremely simple to do. However, it is only simple if you understand how to do it, and when to do it.
Responsibility – The quality or state of being responsible: As a moral, legal or mental accountability.
The task, then, for teaching responsibility is really one of teaching our children to be accountable for their actions. To me, the thought of teaching children to be accountable, is somewhat less daunting, than the notion of teaching “responsibility.” To teach a child to be accountable simply means that a child needs to understand that there are consequences that come with actions. To the extent that we, as parents, protect or buffer our children from the consequences of their actions, we teach them to be irresponsible.
Let me say this a different way: If we allow our children to take action and not experience the consequences of the action, they cannot learn to be accountable for their actions. Likewise, if there is inaction, or a lack of action when there should be, we also support their “irresponsibility” if we do not ensure that a consequence occurs for their inaction.
Let’s walk through a few examples, most of which, you will all say, are obvious. Yet, these are the kinds of circumstances, when I find most of my clients fail to appreciate the importance of their day-to-day choices with their children.
Example 1: Kevin Is Told That His Skates Stay Outside.
While Kevin understands the rule (he is only five years old), his parents repeatedly tell him to take off his skates, when he comes inside. Kevin looks at his mom with big brown eyes, and says that he only wants a cookie. Mom gives him the cookie, and reminds him not to come inside with his skates.Of course, Kevin comes inside with his skates again tomorrow. Seems harmless?
Example 2: Kara Is Told That Her Bedtime Is 7:30.
While Kara continues to hear that bedtime is at 7:30 , she is often watching TV at 8:15, while her parents negotiate with her to get her to bed.The consequence for not responding to bedtime is often a cuddle from Dad on the couch, while they chuckle together watching reruns of Sponge Bob.
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Example 3: Sam Is To Pick Up His Room Once Per Week.
Sam’s parents have told him that he has to pick up his room every Saturday, and that’s the rule. Whether or not you, or Sam, agree with the rule, it doesn’t matter. Mom and Dad have said that this is the rule.It’s Saturday morning, and Sam has been watching cartoons for two hours. He then puts on his soccer gear, and waits for Mom to take him to his soccer game. Mom reminds him that he needs to clean up his room when they come home.After the soccer game, Sam’s friends come over. She again reminds him that he will need to clean his room. It’s Saturday night, and the family goes out to a movie. Sam’s room is still a mess.
These are all common situations. Common problems, and common choices by parents. You and I both could offer fifty other examples. The specific examples do not matter. It is the common theme here that is important.
I find two major errors in judgment when it comes to parents teaching kids about responsibility.
Error No. 1: Parents Don’t Think About Accountability Early Enough.
When dealing with young children, parents often tend to buffer children from the impact of their choices. Whether it is the fact that they hit their brother with a toy, refuse to pick up their room, or tantrum in the grocery store, there is a tendency to dance around children’s upsets in order to avoid allowing them to experience the consequences that come with their behavior.To move down this path in the early years is ultimately a kiss of death. By this I mean that there is no magic moment, when it becomes clear that it is time to turn this around.It is also easiest for kids to learn when they are youngest. As Steven Covey said in his book, “The Seven Habits,” if you pick up one end of the stick, you pick up the other end.
It is best for children to learn this from the very earliest moments of their life.
The worst-case scenario occurs when children hit their middle school years, and parents decide that it is time for kids to learn about “responsibility.” If you wait until these later years to begin to teach this concept, it will be extremely difficult, children will resist, and there will be much gnawing and gnashing of teeth.
The bottom line: Allow children to be accountable for their actions from early on, and responsibility will grow naturally.
Error No. 2: Understanding When To Make Children Accountable.
I find many parents asking questions about when children should be held accountable for their behavior. There seems to be a sense that somehow parents should be lenient, in an effort to understand children’s actions.I strongly discourage this approach. I am not suggesting that parents “rush to judgment” in a harsh and punitive manner.Instead, I do suggest that it is critical to allow, wherever possible, the natural consequences of actions to unfold. When there are no natural consequences, and parents can create a consequence to serve as a “teaching opportunity,” then I strongly support the introduction of a consequence.
This of course goes for both teaching desired behavior, and less desired behavior. Being responsible means that one is accountable for one’s mistakes, but also accountable for one’s successes.
You must understand and appreciate the extreme importance of the consequence of “giving your attention” to the moments and behaviors that you value. A consequence of picking up the room, of doing homework, of holding the door open, is that Mom and Dad notice this. Mom and Dad engage this behavior WHILE IT IS HAPPENING.
The opposite is also true: When fighting over a toy, the toy is simply removed. When the TV is not being turned off, as requested, you simply turn it off yourself, without a word, and turn off the lights as you leave the room. When the room is not picked up, Sam does not go to the soccer game. When the skates come into the house, the skates are put in the closet for a week. When the homework is not done, there is no play.
Teaching responsibility comes naturally and easily, as long as children are held accountable throughout their lives. This is not the equivalent of a lecture on responsibility and behavior. In fact, it has nothing to do with the social or moral philosophies of responsibility.
It simply has to do with the connection between behavior and consequences. When this natural link is allowed to unfold throughout a child’s life, he or she becomes “responsible”, because they learn the link between their behavior and the consequence to their choices.
As children become older, and move into their teenage and early-adult years, teaching responsibility becomes more difficult, if this hasn’t been grasped in the younger years.
Often, what we think of as socially responsible behavior involves understanding that the link between our behavior and the consequences to our action are separated by greater and greater periods of time.
We work for months to save the money to buy a car. We work for weeks to complete a term paper, and then wait weeks to get the results. On the flip side of things, we get our credit card and we start spending; the consequences occur months down the road after accumulating interest and debt. If we don’t keep up with our course work in college, no one really bugs us, and the grades become evident months down the road. If we get our first job, and do only what is required, we notice our peers get promoted, and we get left behind.
All of these “more advanced” lessons about responsibility are predicated on understanding the fundamentals. While there is no guarantee, that these more mature behaviors will evolve, I find there is an extremely strong correlation.
I think of it this way: When children are young, and they pick up “the stick,” the stick is very short. The link between action and consequence needs to be immediate. Their brains begin to make that connection between their actions and the consequences that come with their actions.
As children mature, and move into teenage and young-adult years, the “stick” gets longer. There is often greater separation in time, from the action and the consequence of actions. (That is one of the reasons why it is so tough to begin to teach responsibility, if this lesson is missed during the younger years.)
The notion of teaching responsibility is a simple one: Start young by allowing children to be accountable for their actions. This creates the automatic link in their brain between their actions and consequences that come with their actions.
If they gain the false and inaccurate learning that there is no consequence for their choices, they will be handicapped in their efforts to learn to be “responsible” later in life.
While there is clearly more to the strategies that involve reinforcing responsibility, my focus here is upon encouraging parents to more actively “take responsibility” for making certain their children are not buffered from the consequences of their actions. Some might call this “spoiling” them, or “protecting” children. In my opinion, this is a euphemism for teaching irresponsible behavior. I know that sounds harsh. But I encourage you to follow that logic, through the teenage and young-adult years. Notice where that process ultimately takes a child or a teenager.
If buffered from the consequences of their actions, and you “hope” that they will learn from your discussions and pleading and begging with them, then it is time to wake up. You will be pleading and begging for the next forty years. Words do not teach these life lessons. It is only the experience of life, and the consequences of one’s choices, that provide this valuable learning experience.
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