It is possible to teach responsibility and stop doing everything for your children. Here are three ways to lead your kids towards greater independence.
“It’s time to get up!” you exclaim for the fourth time as you stick your head into your thirteen-year-old son’s bedroom.
Every morning it’s a struggle to get him out of bed.
Sometimes he’s so resistant you literally have to sit next to him and prod until he puts his feet on the ground.
After a number of moans and groans, your son finally complies. But with only twenty minutes before his school bus arrives, he’s going to have to move quickly to get out the door in time.
As he gets dressed and brushes his teeth, you help him pull his backpack and lunch together.
You’re tired of this agonizing daily routine. It means less time for you to get ready and results in a grumpy start to everyone’s day.
But, you tell yourself, if you weren’t persistent every morning, and he was left to his own devices, your son would sleep the entire morning through.
How to stop doing everything for your kids
Many parents assume their children are incapable of being responsible on their own.
Afterall, time and again, it’s proven to be true: your daughter frequently forgets her homework at home, your son constantly leaves dirty dishes on the dining room table, and neither seems able to get ready for school ontime.
So you keep bringing homework to school, putting dishes away, and reminding your kids to wake up every morning.
You’ve become so accustomed to doing all these things (and more) that they’ve simply become part of the routine.
Besides, you reason, it’s often easier to do these things for your children than struggle to get them to do it themselves. In the past when you’ve tried to teach responsibility, an argument ensues, the situation doesn’t improve, and you’re back to managing your kids’ lives once more.
What most parents don’t realize is that the way they’ve tried to teach their kids responsibility is hindering progress.
Why nagging and lecturing doesn’t teach responsibility
It feels like a primal instinct for parents to nag and lecture their kids when they aren’t demonstrating the responsibility we expect from them.
We assume that if we tell our children what they’re doing wrong or constantly remind them of what they need to do, our kids will begin to do it for themselves.
But this is rarely the case.
Instead, nagging and lecturing are interpreted by kids as negative signals that their parents feel they’re incapable and incompetent. And this poor assessment of their abilities diminishes any intrinsic desire to do or act better.
Even worse, too much nagging can wear down positive communication between parents and kids. And if our children are continuously hearing negative messages from us, they’ll eventually tune out everything we’re saying.
See related: How to Stop Nagging Your Kids
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“Kids act better when they feel better.”
Jane Nelson, the author of Positive Discipline, summed up how parents can promote better behavior in kids – without nagging or lecturing – in this simple statement.
No one has the desire to act or be better if they feel poorly about themselves. So if we want our kids to demonstrate greater responsibility, we’ll first need to help them feel capable and competent.
It may seem like a tall hill to climb, especially if your child shows zero desire to act responsibly on his or her own.
But parents can do a number of things to help kids get there. These acts may take practice and require some up-front work. But eventually – gradually – kids will rise to the challenge. And the benefit for us is that in the long run we can take a few steps back from managing their lives.
Here are a few ways you can begin to lead your children toward greater independence and teach responsibility:
Get kids involved in solutions
One way to demonstrate to your children that you feel they’re capable is to ask them to help solve the issue at hand.
Asking our kids for help, instead of telling them what to do, sends the message that we believe they’re capable of doing better and coming up with a solution. And this sense of empowerment makes kids want to do better.
Oftentimes, younger kids will jump at the chance to problem-solve. This age group loves to demonstrate maturity when given the opportunity.
Teens and sometimes tweens, on the other hand, may be more reticent. After years of having a parent do things for them, they won’t view their lack of responsibility as a problem or even as something they want to fix, so persistence is key.
When to approach kids about problem-solving
The best time to get children involved in problem-solving is far from the time when the problem occurs. For example, your son won’t be open to finding a solution to waking up on his own if you ask him shortly after he gets out of bed.
Instead, talk to him about the issue in the afternoon or evening – during a moment when he’s eating a snack or isn’t focused on anything else.
Better yet, especially if more than one child has trouble waking up in the morning, use your family meeting time (or call a special family meeting) to discuss the issue and come up with solutions together.
How to guide kids toward a solution
When you help your child come up with a solution, let them take the lead. Giving kids this agency to make decisions will make them more invested in the outcome and motivated to follow through. And kids can be excellent problem-solvers when given the chance.
Problem-solving will feel more natural to kids as it becomes more commonplace and built into your family culture. And as kids get more accustomed to problem-solving, they’ll grow to appreciate it as a responsibility they’re proud to take part in.
An important part of this activity is to maintain a respectful, non-accusing tone when talking to your kids. Although it’s aggravating (to say the least!) that your son doesn’t recognize how frustrating it is that you have to remind him to wake up multiple times every morning, blaming him won’t teach him how to be more responsible. And it will shut down any desire for him to do better.
See related: How to Empower Kids When They Struggle
Take time to train and then step back
While problem-solving can be a solution in many situations, in some cases it’s possible that your child simply needs to be taught how to be more responsible.
Young kids, for example, would have no idea what’s meant by the phrase “clean up the playroom” unless a parent showed them how to pick up toys and put them away.
And while we can ask children what they think is required to clean up a room to encourage participation, they’ll also likely need guidance from us about exactly what to do.
Teens, even though they appear to be young adults who should know better, still often need coaching and guidance in skills too – such as time management and organization.
Coaching and teaching kids skills is different than lecturing, since it’s an act of working together to help your child learn. And, as always, keeping a respectful tone keeps the discussion from feeling like an accusation.
Here are a few suggested steps to take when training your kids in a specific task:
- As you perform the given task, have your child look on. Explain what you’re doing step by step.
- The next time the task needs to be done, or in the moment, if possible, do it with your child. Or you could do part of the task (such as washing dishes) while he does the other part.
- When the opportunity arises again, have your child do the task by himself while you supervise. Be careful at this stage not to point out every mistake being made – that could cause discouragement. Instead, praise when possible and make suggestions that will set him up for success.
- When your son or daughter feels ready, let them perform the task on their own.
Use routines to encourage independence
One other way to teach responsibility and independence in kids is through the use of routines. Think of routines as guardrails that help keep kids in their lane.
When children have a routine, the need for parents to remind them to do daily tasks diminishes and simply becomes more…routine.
And while young kids usually can’t be expected to follow a routine independently, a routine can lessen power struggles such as when it’s time to brush teeth, take a nap, or get ready for bed. The comfort of knowing what comes next in a day’s rhythm is often all a child needs to cooperate.
Another way to encourage kids’ participation with a routine is to get them involved in creating it. Being given that responsibility, kids feel more in control, which inspires greater willingness to follow through.
Our patience and respectful guidance will help ensure kids’ success as they get used to following a routine. And you may even eventually find that your kids will begin to develop routines of their own.
Looking for an easy way to create a visual routine with your kids? These routine cards can help. Simply cut them out and place them in a prominent place where kids can see them.
Trust that mistakes and setbacks will teach in the long-run
Even after we help kids problem-solve, take time for training, and get kids started on routines, our kids will still likely make mistakes and occasionally be irresponsible.
And that’s OK.
Our children are learning responsibility and, as with any endeavor, there will be setbacks along the way.
It’s helpful to reflect on our own lives and the time we were late picking up our daughter from ballet or accidentally slept past our alarm.
Remember that everyone, including our children, learns from mistakes. While our children will make mistakes – as painful as it is for us to see – it’s the long-term progress that’s important.
Sometimes big leaps in responsibility happen when a mistake occurs, the painful consequences are felt, and our child determines she never wants to repeat that experience again.
Keep this in mind too when it’s tempting to save your child from failure. Because believe me, we’ve all had moments when deep in our hearts we want to save our children from experiencing the discomfort of failure.
But if we don’t let our children work through their mistakes now in childhood, we’ll likely find that they need to endure them as adults when the stakes are often higher.
Make sure your identity isn’t wrapped up in your child’s life
One other trap to be mindful of when letting go and handing over more responsibility to your child is to make sure your identity isn’t wrapped up in your child’s life.
It feels good to feel loved and needed and necessary. Each time our child takes on more responsibility and becomes more independent is a moment when they need us less and that realization can be painful.
But the truth is that the most loving thing we can do for our kids is to prepare them for the world they’ll face without us. And the more we coach and train them and show our confidence in their ability, the more they’ll willingly take on more responsibility.
And this good feeling of being self-reliant will help them soar.
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Kerry Flatley is the owner and author of Self-Sufficient Kids. She is the mother of two girls and a certified positive discipline parent educator. In addition to this training, Kerry has read countless books and articles about how to raise strong, independent kids and put these ideas into practice with her own children. Kerry also holds a BA in economics, an MBA, and a certificate in financial planning.