There are several common strategies, which ultimately can produce short-term success, but long-term failure. It is essential to understand the difference between these two approaches.
I will focus on giving you clear strategies that create responsible children and ingrain the value of responsibility into their behavior and their personality.
Common Mistakes In Teaching Responsibility
One of the common concerns that I hear from parents is that they have difficulty getting kids to pick up their rooms, help out around the house, or even take care of their own stuff.
Frequent mistakes include efforts to begin to pay children for picking up their rooms or doing their chores. This strategy can produce some short-term results.
However, it is problematic for two central reasons. First, whenever you begin down the path of paying for behavior, for which no one else will pay your children, you are teaching them a false lesson. No one pays us for taking care of basic responsibilities of upkeep in our homes (putting the dishes away, taking care of the laundry, etc.). This is just part of what we do. If you condition your children to expect payment for these behaviors, you provide them a huge disservice.
Second, when you begin to pay for behavior, you will always be paying for behavior. The problem is, that as children get older, they expect to be paid more and more. Eventually, you will find that your children’s demand for payment exceeds your willingness to fund their demands for completing such fundamental tasks as picking up their room, helping out on a Saturday afternoon, or putting away their clothes.
A third common mistake is the tendency to wait too long before beginning to attempt to teach children about taking some responsibility. Time and time again I interview parents who have trained their children to think that they have no responsibilities; Mom and Dad function more as maids and housekeepers and often respond to every request or complaint offered by their children.
Many times, these parents are engaged in the fantasy that their kids will eventually “get it” when they hit their teenage years. This is truly a fantasy, one that is not grounded in reality.
A fourth common mistake is that parents begin to feel that their children are involved in too many activities and that helping out around the house would simply be an overload. In my assessment of the requests that most parents put on their children, taking care of some basic responsibilities and chores around the house amounts to no more than 5 to 30 minutes several times a week. In my opinion, it is absurd to suggest that kids are too overwhelmed to take part in such responsibilities.
Getting Kids to Take Responsibility: From 5 to 15
What follows is a list of five principles that you can follow to build responsibility in your home. These are not necessarily complex; in fact, they are quite simple. They allow for consistency and predictability, and it is more likely that you will be able to follow through for the next 10 years or more with this plan.
1. Start young! (If Possible)
As soon as your kids are able, make sure that they assist you in picking up toys, putting things away in their room, and setting the table. Don’t hesitate to engage kids in these fundamental responsibilities. While they may not complete the job as well as you would do it, it is more important that they begin to get the experience, and that you engage them while they are working on these responsibilities. This will begin to nurture such behaviors at a very early stage of life.
2. Take advantage of natural opportunities to use leverage.
When children are very young, it is easy to take advantage of situations when children want to transition to a new activity. As part of such transitions, however, insist that your son or daughter help you pick up the toys, put away the mess, or simply help out. As children get older, this becomes more and more difficult to do. So remember to start young.
3. Never battle with resistance! Remember to use your leverage.
At times, your children may resist helping out. Make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of battling with this resistance: Don’t negotiate. Don’t beg. Don’t plead. Don’t argue. Instead, remind your kids that dinner will begin once the toys are picked up, and then you slowly begin to model the behavior you want. Ignore the resistance.
4. Water the seeds!
Remember to be vigilant of the moment when your son or daughter begins to help out. At that point, begin to engage them, and put energy into “catching” the good stuff …as soon as it shows up. This is really the hidden secret to nurturing healthy, successful behavior patterns. Imagine that your attention is like water to a plant. When you give attention to a behavior or an emotion, you are “watering” that behavior. When you give attention to unwanted behaviors, you are “watering weeds.” When you give your energy and attention to positive, healthy moments, you are then “watering” the seeds…the seeds of success, happiness, and responsibility.
It is essential to make certain that you engage in this responsible behavior WHILE IT IS HAPPENING. Without this critical action on your part, there is no way to wire your child’s brain in a way that creates a positive association to doing these chores.
And that’s what we really want to do. We want to create a positive association in your child’s brain so that responsible action FEELS GOOD!
How can you help create more opportunities to water those seeds? You then…
5. Institute: “Work, then Play”
In my discussion of healthy homework habits [Click Here], I outline the advantages of this simple structure. As children enter into kindergarten and first grade, it seems reasonable to begin to set up this structure as a way of organizing things at home. By establishing this as a fundamental rule and a way in which things will operate around the house, kids learn to address the basic responsibilities that need to be done before they are allowed to play.
Remember to allow children the opportunity to whine or complain, while you simply do nothing for a while if they choose to resist getting their chores done. You have to trust in the power of boredom. If they are allowed to sit there and be bored for extended periods of time, they will eventually choose to do their work. At that moment, remember to “water the seed.” Recall that you can water the seed through any means of engaging your child while they are taking care of their responsibilities. Engage briefly. Engage with variety. Continue this until responsibilities are completed with relative ease.
Let’s review: Here are the five principles:
- Start young! Don’t wait till the teenage years.
- Take advantage of natural opportunities to use leverage.
- Never battle with resistance!
- Water the seeds!
- Institute: “Work, then Play”
If you keep these ideas in mind, you’ll find that children learn to take on responsibilities. It doesn’t necessarily happen in the first week, or the second week, or even the third week. It may take four to six weeks before this pattern begins to create a smooth and effortless follow-through in the completion of chores. So remember to be patient.
Also, I strongly encourage you to keep allowances out of this discussion, and out of any strategy to build responsible behavior. It will only serve to confuse your children and create false learning that will handicap your children in the future.