Kristin was a single parent and came to me, frustrated. For the past few months, she worried about her 6-year-old son Tyler who was acting like an entitled child. She wanted to know how to raise a responsible child, hoping to instill a good work ethic in her son. “Teaching kids responsibility is exhausting. I feel like I’m doing everything and still failing,” she lamented. “I give him the responsibilities of a child who is normal. When he comes home from school, I remind him to do his homework right away. I encourage him to clean up after himself. I get after him to make his bed and take his dishes to the sink. Yet half of the time, I’m not sure he’s even listening.”
I empathized with Kristin. Like most parents, she believed that her number one job was teaching kids responsibility. You may be surprised, but I disagree with that notion. Our job is not to raise a responsible child.
Our job is to provide a steady supply of opportunities for children to become responsible
Most parents like Kristin, spend loads of time and energy teaching their kids responsibility. Most believe they alone are accountable for their child’s actions. Trying to raise a responsible child this way creates a big problem. Parents end up warning, lecturing, and reminding children to do things. They open themselves up to frustration and significant power struggles. As a result, Tyler was on the road to becoming an entitled child. His typical response to his mom was, “But you didn’t remind me, I forgot.”
When we over-focus on teaching kids responsibility, it tends to produce an unspoken message: “All my self-worth and happiness is tied up in how you behave.” This message gives children too much power to handle. For example, strong-willed children tend to use this power to punish their parents. Over time, they can develop into an entitled child who is unwilling and highly skilled at not taking responsibility. In contrast, sensitive children may feel completely overwhelmed by that kind of power. They can internalize it and develop behavioral problems driven by anxiety and depression. Or they can externalize it with anger, bullying, or backtalk.
Thankfully, there is a better way to raise a responsible child
When we provide children with a steady supply of opportunities to be responsible, we parent differently. We ask children to listen the first time, and let them decide their fate. For example, if Tyler walks outside in cold weather without a coat, it will naturally lead to feeling cold. If he refuses to do homework before playing outside, then it leads to the removal of a privilege. The key is stop warning and reminding and start letting the consequences do the teaching.
Giving children opportunities to be responsible (without warnings, lectures, or threats), helps remove the need for power struggles. When you give children opportunities to be responsible, the unspoken message is much different: “I want you to be happy. I want you to become an independent person who thrives, but I can’t make that happen for you. You’ll have to do most of the work.”
Kristin was struggling because most of her happiness and self-worth was tied up in how Tyler behaved. This created power struggles and the result was not pretty. But I assured her that with a few key parenting tips, she could avoid raising entitle children and teach Tyler responsibility in a way that would help them both get out of survival mode and thrive.
If you want to raise a responsible child and avoid raising entitled children, try the following strategies:
Start teaching kids responsibility early
The problem is where to start. I suggest having a well thought out plan so you can relax and know you are doing a good job each day. However, if you want kids to learn their lessons early in life they need exposure to those big lessons.
The key to all learning is experience! For example, you don’t learn to ride a bike in a classroom. People need several thousands of opportunities of trial and error before they can master things. When your toddler throws his favorite toy, consider saying, “Oh… looks like this toy has to be put away until tomorrow.” Then, gently remove the toy and redirect his attention to the next activity. If he complains about being hungry, show him where the snacks are in the fridge. If he throws his dirty clothes on the floor, don’t pick them up. Instead, put a hamper in his room and show him where the dirty clothes belong. When the hamper is full, praise his good deeds. Next, ask him to be your helper and carry it to the washroom.
When Kristin began to try these strategies with Tyler, he started to listen the first time. She saw Tyler taking the initiative without being asked. Best of all, the warnings and reminders became a thing of the past.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if you are a single parent
Simply say, “Can you be my helper?” Children like feeling important and helping their parents. They need opportunities to contribute to the common good of the family. When we support their efforts, they become “response-able.” Yes, this can feel like more work for you, and not every task will get completed perfectly or at record speed. However, the payoff will be worth it. Your child will feel important as he takes ownership and pride in his actions. Over time, he will develop pleasurable associations around helping instead of negative ones.
The responsibilities of a child need to be age-appropriate
It’s important that your expectations remain in harmony with what a child can deliver for their age and stage of development. A 3-year-old may not be able to do what a 6-year-old can, but they can indeed begin to learn responsibility by putting away their toys or helping Mommy clean up a mess.
Praise your child
Although the responsibilities of a child vary, they love positive attention. When you praise their good deeds, those same deeds are more likely to occur in the future.
Model the responsibilities of a child at home
Try saying, “We put our clothes in the hamper. We put our dishes in the sink.” The word “we” is a verbal cue. It helps children feel like they’re part of a team.
Stimulate their brain: Ask a lot of thinking questions
Instead of barking orders like, “Brush your teeth!” ask a lot of thinking questions. Try asking, “What’s the next thing you need to do so you can be ready for school?” Consistently asking this question will help your child keep focused on their to-do list. Over time, he will start to internalize that question and build the to-do list in his mind. Before you know it, he will manage the morning tasks as an independent youngster.
Practice Mentoring and Discipleship
As Kristin learned these new strategies, she began putting them into play. For example, she wanted Tyler to make his bed without any drama. First, Kristin showed Tyler how to make his bed while he watched. Next, she suggested they try it together, saying, “Tyler, will you be my helper?” Next, she watched as Tyler practiced making his bed. She supervised him closely, offering helpful instruction and praise, so he felt affirmed and not shamed. Once he got the hang of it, Kristin monitored him from afar, standing in the doorway making small talk while he made the bed on his own. Before she knew it, Tyler was making his bed without any prompting.
Let your child make mistakes
Although the responsibilities of a child can vary in each home, don’t try to jump in and solve all your child’s problems. Instead, let the natural consequences do the talking and teaching about responsibility. Being cold at school all day will yell far louder than any parent can about wearing a coat. The exception here is when natural consequences produce physical harm. Allowing a child to learn that running out into the street without looking for cars will kill him is not an option.
In addition, don’t be afraid to impose logical consequences when kids forget tasks. You could say, “Young men who forget to make their bed don’t get to play outside after school.” Or, “Feel free to go outside as soon as your bed is made.”
Never label your child as irresponsible
Kids are kids. They need lots of opportunities to get distracted, be irresponsible, and learn from those moments. For the road to wisdom is bumpy and filled with potholes. When they mess up, it’s important to remember that shame and guilt never work as motivators. Instead, they cripple the learning process. If you are going to say anything when children blow it, try saying, “Wow, what can you learn from this situation?” Or, “How do you plan on solving this problem, sweetie?”
A Point to Ponder
Remember that the only person you have complete control over is yourself. Once you realize this, your happiness will no longer be tied up in what your child does or doesn’t do. Like Kristin, you too can avoid raising entitled children who backtalk and discover how to raise a responsible child. You can nix the power struggles by implementing a few creative adjustments and strategies. Then, watch how your child grows into an independent and responsible young person who thrives!