My 13 year-old had developed an ‘attitude’ that was driving our family crazy. After countless requests that she ‘play nice’ that were met with eye-rolling disdain, things finally came to a head.
“What do you want from this family?” I asked.
“I just want to be left alone, and I want to be allowed to do what I want” was her reply.
Our tweens and teens aren’t as cute as they once were, and for most of us, they’re far less compliant than they may have been during middle childhood. Now that adolescence has begun, they are moody, hormonal, and annoyingly private. And every request we make seems to be met with resistance.
We experience conflict about curfews, clothing, and cleaning. We argue about music, friendships, application to schoolwork or extra-curricular activities, and time spent in front of screens. We want our children to be responsible, but they seem to delight in irresponsibility.
How do we raise responsible kids without over-stepping the boundaries that become so precious to them as they strive for independence and maturity?
Here are five tips that can help:
It’s normal that your kids will complain about how they are overworked, and you’re the worst slave-driving parents in the world. It’s normal that they’ll want you to do everything for them.
If you do it all for them, or if you are too easy when setting limits, your child will feel entitled to expect you to do things for them. If your children want for nothing, they will not feel responsible for anything.
So make sure they have responsibilities. Responsibility breeds responsibility.
For your child’s entire life you’ve probably instinctively solved your children’s problems. As they get older, it’s time for that to change. From now on when they come to you with an issue, don’t jump in and fix things. Yes, you know how to do it and you can do it faster and easier… and without their tears and moans and whining. But it’s your job to let them struggle a little, and gently offer guidance if they’re really stuck.
Here are some examples:
When your child comes to you with an emergency, be empathic, and then ask what she thinks could be a solution. (Her solution doesn’t have to be great – just good enough!)
When your son has a school activity or excursion, tell him the night before that he’ll be responsible for arranging his own materials/snacks etc.
Let your kids know that they’re responsible for their own breakfast or lunch prep. Then ask what they need and you’ll buy it so they can take on that responsibility and work through it themselves. Let your kids know that most problems have a range of solutions. They don’t have to do it your way. Then invite them to be resourceful and find their own solutions, whether it’s a practical problem, an academic problem, or a social problem.
As our children get older, we find that they don’t jump to attention as quickly as we might prefer. We ask them to do something and find it’s not completed in the timeframe we had envisioned (like NOW!).
Use gentle reminders, such as “Noah, the dishes.” Or “Maddy, your school bag.”
Giving them a gentle nudge can be helpful, but push them too hard and you’ll get resistance.
A quick extra tip: With older kids it can be useful to ask them when you can expect to see a task done. For example: “Sophie, you’re responsible for cleaning the car this afternoon. What time will you have it done by?”
These self-established deadlines are often far more effective than making demands as they allow kids some autonomy over their responsibilities.
No child ever developed a strong and responsible work ethic by being consistently hassled by parents, or by being confronted with overwhelming tasks.
Think about the number of requests that you’re making, and the size of those requests. And consider the way you’re ‘enforcing’ those requests. If something isn’t working, find out why. It may be that cleaning the living areas and vacuuming the house is simply too big a task for your 12 year-old. Or that requiring your 17 year-old son to have the lawn mown by 10am Saturday morning is just too early. Or that your 9pm curfew is logistically impossible for your 14 year-old to keep. Some reasons will be entirely legitimate, others less so. But find out why requests are causing issues and be open to changing them if it’s reasonable to do so.
This may seem like a contradiction of the previous point, but the two ideas actually work hand in hand. It’s essential to make sure our requests are reasonable, but once those reasonable requests are made, we should expect that they be met. Research consistently points to the strong positive relationship between parental expectation and child behaviour.
Ultimately, our children will learn responsibility by being given responsibility. So let them take on some hard things. Be prepared to ‘gulp’ a little at the things they want to do. In most cases you might be pleasantly surprised.