Hopefully, all of us parents want our children to grow up to be personally responsible, morally sound, basically self-sufficient adults who make a positive contribution to society. While there are no guarantees we can make this happen, we do have a great deal of power to lead our children on this path. If you are frequently frustrated by your children’s attitudes and actions of disrespect, laziness, sloppiness, disobedience, etc., TAKE HEART! Here are the five basic keys to steering your kids onto the right path – the path of personal responsibility:
1. EXPECT responsibility in your children. This is NOT the same as wishing, pleading, or even hoping your children will be responsible. Expecting them to be responsible means walking away when it is their time to work, rather than hovering over them to ensure they get it done and get it done right. Expecting responsibility in your kids sends a powerful message of how much you believe in them and their abilities – something children need like air and water. Whether your children are three, ten, fourteen, or eighteen, this principle will go so far to empower them in personal responsible!
2. Clearly communicate your expectations to your children. It is so important to explain your expectations to your children with authority and specificity. Speaking with authority is tied directly to the previous point. It means expecting your children to follow your instruction and leading, because you believe in them. It also means KNOWING you are the primary authority in your children’s lives. How many times have you engaged your children in verbal/emotional battles of will, hoping you will emerge victorious, with your kids coming to a greater respect for your authority? How often does it work out the way you were hoping? How drained are you when you finally get there with them? When you speak to your children from a solid position of authority, not waiting for the results to tell you if you really are the authority, they are far more likely to respect you and follow your leadership.
3. Stop taking responsibility for your children. OK, I know this one may throw you for a loop at first, but think it through with me. You know your children are responsible when they take responsibility for their actions – right? And taking responsibility for their actions means taking responsibility for a series of specific tasks – right? So, if your child has a task to complete, and you are watching over them and immediately intervening to ensure it is done correctly, who does it sound like is taking responsibility for the task? And if you are really the one bearing responsibility for the work, how can they really assume true responsibility for it? So, whether your child is dealing with caring for a pet, completing household chores, tackling homework, or maintaining that first car – consider the possibility that his/her irresponsibility may be a reflection of your over-responsibility.
4. Allow your children to suffer the consequences of poor choices. Loving parents don’t like to see their children suffer. It hurts us. But suffering the consequences of poor choices is one of life’s greatest teachers. We must learn to love our children enough to look at the bigger picture beyond this moment of temporary suffering. Painful lessons typically lead to real learning and changed behavior, sometimes even changed attitudes. “Getting off easy” teaches children it is ok to keep doing things just the way they are, setting their feet more firmly on the path of irresponsibility and disrespect. For parents of young children, check to see how many times you play the “1…2…2 1/2…I’m not kidding…Don’t make me come over there…OK…3!” game. Stretching out that three count to a consequence is a reflection of this type of parental rescuing, which simply leads to more and more required effort from parents to persuade children to act. Frankly, the counting to three game can often be a reflection of parental difficulty with any or all of the previous three points, even when parents do a straight three count to consequences. Ask yourself what is really the point of counting aloud to three. Parents of older children / teenagers, how often do you find yourself giving in on a stated consequence, then feeling frustrated and angry at your children / teens for not respecting you and your rules or for being irresponsible? Some lovingly imposed suffering will go a long way to cure this ill!
5. Be available to help your children process and learn from their choices and results. When you see or hear your child expressing their frustration at the suffering that resulted from a poor choice, be ready to genuinely show your compassion for them. This doesn’t mean apologizing for enforcing their suffering, which is a natural result of poor choices, disobedience, and misbehavior. It does mean recognizing their frustration, and letting them know you truly hope they get better results – for their sake. If you communicate this message with sarcasm or judgmental preaching, you will effectively shut down your connection and lose influence and leadership of your children. If you are able to genuinely connect with them, then lovingly process with them how the situation could have gone better for them, they will be better equipped to take responsibility for themselves and make a better choice next time. In addition, it is amazing to see how children, especially teens, respond to parents’ stories of the lessons they learned “the hard way” in their own lives. (Notice how many of your best lessons were learned “the hard way,” which simply reflects suffering the consequences of poor choices and taking personal responsibility to face those consequences!) They love to hear about your mistakes, because it communicates: a realistic humility that you aren’t perfect, enough personal strength and courage to expose your mistakes and weaknesses without shame, and a reason to hear and respect your wisdom and leadership besides the simple “I told you so.” (However, there is nothing wrong with a steady diet of “I told you so,” as it is just a simple reflection of points 1 and 2 above.)