Dear Dr Justin,
I feel like my whole day is spent dealing with ‘Mum, he hit me.’ And ‘Mum, she said I’m an idiot’. All day my kids are at me to fix their problems.
It’s driving me insane.
My kids are 9, 7, 5, and 2 and they never let up. I feel like I’m the policeman all day, and then I’m the judge. How can I get my kids to take some responsibility and deal with their junk without dragging me into every issue?
As a parent, it’s a fairly normal thing to find yourself constantly barraged with complaints, pleas, crying, and other dilemmas that your children bring to you, especially with kids around your children’s ages. And it’s also pretty normal to be the Mr or Mrs Fix-it of the family too.
After all, isn’t that what the ‘big person’ does? As a parent we often feel as though we have far more knowledge, we usually have better problem-solving skills, and of course we believe that we have a much clearer perspective of the situation.
The trouble with this approach is that by taking it upon ourselves to be the parent with the answers – the policeman, the judge, the lawyer – we make our children’s problems our problems. The results of this are:
- Our kids don’t become responsible
- Our kids don’t learn the cognitive or relational skills they need to solve their problems
- Our kids fail to develop competence to navigate social challenges
- Our kids rely on blame as a convenient tool to excuse poor behaviour
- Our kids become slow in developing resourcefulness and initiative
- Our kids might even be slow in developing empathy, compassion, and understanding
If you want responsible kids, give them responsibility
Your kids will become responsible by thinking through their challenges and developing their own solutions. There are a couple of things to consider though:
First, make sure that responsibility is at a level consistent with your child’s level of development. No good giving them things that are developmentally beyond them, or that are overwhelming.
Second, remember the value in “Tell, Show, Do”. First tell your kids what to do, then show them, and then have them do it. Repeating this process can equip them with competence, and confidence, in taking on responsibilities.
So, when your kids come to you, crying, dobbing, or in a fix, try these ideas:
- Give them my absolute attention. They know you’re listening, and you are present
- Really hear them out. Wait until they’re done.
- Then restate so they know you get what the problem is.
- Finally, don’t try to solve a thing!
Yup, seriously, don’t fix it.
Instead, put it back onto them with a few simple statements that I would vary based on the situation. They include a show of understanding, and then a shift in responsibility.
“Wow. I can see why you’re so upset.” “Oh, that’s a really challenging situation.” “Gee, that must make you feel terrible.”
We do this because our kids are telling us their story as much to get help as to be understood. They want us to ‘get’ how they’re feeling. Once they know we get it, they’ll settle relatively quickly. Then you can ask them
“What do you think is the best thing to do about it?” “How is what you’re doing working out for you?” “What else can you try?”
If the questions above don’t work out so well, I still don’t recommend taking it upon yourself to fix. Instead offer my help in a way that makes your child develop a responsible solution:
“What would you like me to do?” ”How can I help?
If your kids do ask that you do something, I recommend engaging the kids in working through the solution too. Ask them how it will work, whether there are other strategies, and so on. It may take a little longer, but it will get the kids thinking, and it will have them resolving their issues more without your continual involvement.
Will this solve all of your problems? No. The kids will still come to you complaining. But this approach will help them use their resourcefulness and initiative. It will lead them to begin to think for themselves. Ultimately, it will help them to become more responsible by thinking through their challenges and developing their own solutions. It may take a little more time in the short-term, but the longer term pay-offs are well worth it.
PS – As the kids get older I recommend another interesting idea. Have the children convene a ‘Children’s Council’ where they are to discuss family matters and develop solutions they think are reasonable. Then they can come to you, as parents, to discuss their resolutions and be guided by you.