Will My Kids Ever Learn To Be Responsible?

As hard as we try, our children all too often continue to be forgetful, sloppy, self-centered, lazy, and even angry and rebellious. The truth is that many of the things we do, although well-intentioned, actually promote this irresponsible behavior. Here’s a common morning scene in schools across the country.

The bell has rung, and teachers and students are settling into the morning routine. In contrast, down in the main office, parents are rushing to line up so they can drop off things their kids forgot – lunch money, binders, homework, gym shoes …. Hold that scene. What is the worst thing that would happen if parents didn’t bring in the forgotten items?

Before we answer this question, let’s examine another scene, this one from earlier on the same morning: 

The Morning Scramble

                     “Steve, Sam, Time to get up,” you call to your 5th grade twins.

And then hurry back to getting yourself dressed for work. Five minutes

later you realize you’ve heard no movement from the bedroom.

                 “Come on boys. You’ve got 30 minutes before the bus comes.”

 No response

 You go in and gently shake them, pulling off the covers.

“Boys, you have to have time for breakfast.”

“Ya, ya, I’ll be right there,” Steve mumbles as he pulls the sheet

back up and over his head.

                  “Get up right this minute!” you demand.

By the time they do get up (with your constant reminding) and have gathered all their school stuff (you hope) together, you end up frazzled and driving them to school yet again. And you’re thinking, “When will these kids learn to be more responsible?” The answer to the question is “Not as long as we parents are carrying out the responsibilities that belong to our children.”

Having been a parent, a teacher and a school counselor for 35+ years, I’d like to introduce you to a process that promotes success in showing kids HOW to take responsibility and HOW to live with the consequences of not taking responsibility. This process, modeled on a teacher’s lesson plan, gives specific teacher and parent behaviors for teaching a successful lesson whether the topic is writing an essay or getting up and ready for school on time.

The Parent Lesson Plan

  1. Learning Objective (what the child will be able to continue doing after practice)

Sit down with your child and explain the learning goal. “ It’s important to be on time for school, so let’s make a plan that would help you get up and be ready on time.” Together, write out the learning objective in kid friendly words and encourage the children to make it into a colorful and creative poster. Display it on the refrigerator.

  1.  Discussion and Plan

As you put the learning objective into words together, be brainstorming some reasons this particular learning is important and some ways to go about accomplishing it. Describe in detail what you will be doing and won’t be doing to help with the learning. Decide on a plan. Perhaps it is to buy alarm clocks and let the children get themselves up and ready without reminders.

  1. Establish Consequences and carry through on them

Brainstorm together developmentally appropriate *natural and logical consequences. Decide together on the one(s) to have. “Okay, boys, this means that if you don’t get up and ready on time, we’ll know you need more sleep, so bedtime will become an hour earlier than right now.”

* Natural Consequence. Something that would “naturally” occur as a result of the person’s behavior. An example might be getting a zero on a test if the student missed it as a result of an unexcused lateness or absence.

 *Logical Consequence. Something that would be a “logical” result from the person’s behavior. An example might be having to go to bed earlier in order to be able to get up on time. Parents, or parents and child, create these to match the behavior.

  1. Demonstrate and Model the behavior in your own actions

Research studies have shown consistently that modeling is the strongest learning tool.

  1. Guide, Encourage, Observe, and Listen

This process is hard work for children. Let them know you understand as they practice, make mistakes, live with consequences, and make progress. Avoid criticizing and reminding,* and instead say encouraging things, “It’s really hard to get up so early. We appreciate all you’re doing” or, if they must live with unwanted consequences, “We wish you didn’t have to go to bed an hour earlier. If this leads to success in being on time, next week we can try the original plan again.” Observe and listen to learn each child’s frustration points as well as specific ways to help each different child achieve success.

*A note about ways parents can talk to short-circuit power-struggles: Avoid criticizing  and reminding, and for a complete list of statements to avoid, please consult Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Program (www.gordontraining.com).

  1. Repeat as often as it takes, never giving up.

It’s natural to feel like giving up, but this isn’t ever an option (more on this later).

Okay, let’s see this plan in action. You’ve created the learning objective (I fleshed it out based on a discussion with my own children):

“Steve and Sam will get up for school when their alarm rings. They’ll get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, have all needed school supplies ready, and be on time to catch the school bus. Dad and Mom may give a reminder once a morning during the first week and then no more reminders.”

The effective teacher has learned that telling isn’t enough for learning. Students have to practice the responsibility through an activity (step 2), be guided and encouraged throughout (step 5), allowed to make mistakes, and then experience the natural/logical consequences (step 3). As we begin the lesson plan based on the learning objective for Steve and Sam, let’s keep these last 2 parts uppermost in our thinking – allowed to make mistakes and experience the natural consequences of those mistakes.

The activity begins, and at this point most parents are feeling, at best, pessimistically hopeful. “What if he still oversleeps, misses the bus, and I end up having to take him to school?” During the first week, this may happen, but whatever you established as the age-appropriate natural and logical consequence must also happen.

Perhaps the consequence is that bedtime will have to be earlier because the child is obviously too tired to get up in the morning (which may be the case). Perhaps it’s that he walks to school (if age appropriate) with you following invisibly behind for safety. In my experience, children dislike both of these consequences and will work to avoid them, especially if they’ve experienced them.

“What is the worst thing that would happen if a child had to go without lunch for a day, or had to walk (with parent guidance) to school, or had to receive a demerit for forgetting her gym clothes, or experience any other outcomes of the myriad irresponsible things our children are prone to?” The worst thing is that our child would have to experience the natural consequences of being irresponsible. And the best part is that our child would be learning and internalizing this process while we’re right there to guide and encourage him through it.

This same process applies as we teach our children how to become responsible in other areas of their lives: riding in the car, shopping, doing their homework, feeding the dog, sharing with others, – everything we teach them as they learn the process of taking on age appropriate responsibilities.

“Will our kids ever learn to be responsible?” Yes, but only if we clearly verbalize the expected behavior, engage them in a time for practice, guide and support as they practice, and consistently carry through on the pre-established natural or logical consequences when they don’t carry through. This is a process for teaching our children HOW to become responsible.



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