Irresponsible Children: Why Nagging and Lecturing Don't Work

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Irresponsible Children:  Why Nagging and Lecturing Don't Work

If you’re like most parents, you probably spend enormous amounts of time and energy teaching about the importance of being responsible. You encourage it, you explain why it’s important, and you remind your child again and again why he should do the things he’s supposed to do. You complain, nag and lecture, but to no avail. It probably seems like you’re talking to a brick wall, because your kid still won’t clean his room, empty the dishwasher, complete his homework or apologize to his little brother unless you threaten and punish.

Instead of learning responsibility, your child is learning how to function in reaction to you.

Why is this such a hard lesson to teach—and why does learning to be responsible seem so hard for kids? It’s not because your child is hard-headed or a spoiled brat, or because you haven’t been trying to teach him about it. Here's the hard pill to swallow: if your child is continually irresponsible, it could mean that you aren’t taking responsibility for your own behavior.

You’re probably saying, “That’s absurd. I certainly do take responsibility for my own behavior.”  And I believe you. If I had to take a guess, you’ve probably been extremely vigilant about trying to convince your child that he should be more responsible. It might even define your relationship together—and you’re probably ready to tear your hair out over it. No doubt you’ve put in an enormous amount of effort to make certain he behaves well. But here’s the clincher: This intense focus on what your child should do gets in the way of his ability to be emotionally separate from you. You think you’re being helpful, but your actions actually aid his irresponsibility. That’s because he’s functioning in reaction to you instead of being responsible for himself. (I'll explain more about that later.)

So what does this have to do with you not accepting responsibility for your own behavior? When you move your focus off of your child and onto yourself by taking responsibility for how you will act, your child will likely learn to be more accountable for his behavior. Think of it this way: If you jump into his box and tell him what to do and how to act, how responsible for himself can he become? The two of you have effectively become entangled. Instead, stay in your own box, maintain your boundaries and take responsibility for yourself.

Related: How to parent effectively and calmly.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your adult son always shows up at the last minute and expects dinner to be waiting for him. When he arrives, you start lecturing him about how he should call ahead, while you’re scurrying around getting food on the table for him. You continue to criticize him for his inconsiderate attitude while waiting on him hand and foot. Trust me, this will not teach him anything about being more thoughtful in the future. In fact, you've probably motivated him to come as late as possible next time to avoid criticism and stress. A better way to handle it is to tell him if he doesn’t let you know he’s coming home for dinner by four p.m., you won’t be able to make anything for him—and then stick to your word. The key is that you’re taking responsibility for what you will and won’t do here and letting him deal with the natural consequences. No lectures, no preaching, no criticizing, no personalizing. Respect his ability to make choices, even if you don’t agree with them. (Not letting you know he’s coming home for dinner.) Respond to those choices from your own best and most responsible thinking and actions. (Set a limit and stick to it. If he doesn’t call by the time you've stated, you won’t make him dinner.) Even though it may feel uncomfortable, taking responsibility for yourself will likely earn his respect. The goal isn't to change him—you can't. The goal is to become a strong, clear individual who he respects and who is inspiring.

Related: Let consequences work for you.

Here are four needed steps to get away from lecturing, nagging and punishing that will help you move toward having more responsible kids.

1. Put the lecture on “pause.” When you’re worried about your child’s irresponsibility and you’re about to lecture and preach, stop for a moment and breathe. The moment between your child’s action and your response is your most important parenting moment. It is in this space that you can choose to respond from a knee-jerk reaction or from a more thoughtful place. The knee-jerk response often calms you down momentarily, but it’s the start to becoming a nag. When you pause and think about the bigger picture, you can make a better choice: the choice to stay out of your child’s box and to remain emotionally separate. Although it doesn’t feel as good—you’re not scratching that reactionary itch—you know that it can lead to a more responsible parent- child relationship. Without the pause, it’s easy to let your emotions lead you astray.

2. Shift your gaze off of your child—and onto yourself. Confront yourself with the important questions. Ask yourself, “What would a responsible parent do in this situation? What are my options if my child is not acting responsibly—and which option do I want to choose? And am I willing to live with the possible consequences of that choice?”

Let’s say you wanted your 16-year-old son to get a part-time job last summer. He kept saying he was looking, but never put applications in anywhere and ended up sitting around the house. Now that the school year has started, he’s not getting his work done, and when he does, he somehow forgets to hand it in to the teacher. And what’s worse, the angrier you get, the more detached and flat he gets.

First, stop and ask yourself, “Is there any way I might be contributing to my child’s irresponsibility? Have I set myself up to be the nag, or am I over-functioning for him?” You're taking the obligation off of him because you're serving as a constant reminder about what he should be doing. This gets in the way of your child being able to hear his own voice. Now, instead of learning responsibility, he's learning to function in reaction to you. 

I think it's more effective to determine what your bottom line is, and then give consequences when your child doesn’t do his job. Always go back to, “What’s my responsibility here, and what's my child's?” The consequence in the case listed above might be that your child has to do his school work in the living room and not in his bedroom, or that he can’t watch TV until his homework is done for the evening.

3. What does my child need? Understand that kids with ADHD, ADD or other learning disabilities may need a different kind of guidance from parents. Perhaps they often forget homework at school or neglect to hand it in, even when they’ve done it. If this is the situation in your family, your job is to help your child create a structure for himself. You will likely have to stay more involved and check in more often. Another thing to ask yourself is, “What does this child need?” Not, “What do my kids need,” but “What does this particular kid need?” And then determine what your responsibilities are and aren't.

It might be that you have to help your child design a chart to keep track of what he has to do. But he should then be in charge of putting a check next to those things when they get done.

Related: Does your child make you feel worried and anxious?

4. Know when you’re in your child’s box. Most of the time we’re not necessarily aware that we have crossed boundaries. There are usually signs that you have stepped into your child’s box. It might be when you’re feeling frazzled, at the end of your rope, and frustrated. On the other hand, when you feel calm and engaged in your own interests, that may indicate that you're in your own box. Know what the triggers are that cause you to jump from your box to his. Try to increase your awareness of yourself.

Most of us think we’re teaching our kids responsibility. But truth be told, we’re really preaching it. And guess what? This only creates more dependency. Dependency in relationships doesn’t encourage kids to be responsible for themselves—quite the opposite, in fact. The more you act in ways that respect your own values and principles, the more you will promote the necessary emotional separateness between yourself and your child. Why is this important? The more emotionally separate you are, the freer your child is to see you more clearly, with all your strengths and weaknesses—which allows him to see himself more clearly. You’re no longer in his box or in his head, telling him what to do all the time. And the more clearly or objectively your child sees himself and others and acts on that awareness, the more responsible for himself he can become.

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.


But what about when the consequences wind up benefitting or giving the child what they want? We are late for soccer because ball/pads/etc. were nowhere to be found, or better, we don't go to soccer because of this, and the response is "I don't want to do soccer anyway" when we [parents] made the arrangment with the child who begged to be on the travleing team that it was a long season with a commitment to go to all practices and games. I feel like I am loosing on all fronts in this situation. help.

Comment By : Jen

I found myself to be guilty of being a naging-lecturing parent. My son has ADD and I struggle with him and my other children in the area of responsibility. The information provided sounds like something Im willing to try. I will keep you posted of the outcome of me staying in my own box. Thanks so much!

Comment By : T.Brown

Thanks for the good advice. I never thought of myself as being part of the problem, but I will put this information into practice. My son has ADHD, and one of our biggest problems is for him to get up in the morning, and be ready to go to school. We've given him every kind of alarm clock. We have stopped getting him up. Once, he did sleep in, and his consequence was that if he overslept, he would have to walk to school (over 3 miles). He did this, and when he finally arrived at school, people treated him like a celebrity - for walking that far to school.

Comment By : Seattle Sleeper

Seattle Sleeper - does he like the transit? My kidz hate the transit! When they oversleep, they know I won't take them to school and they have to take the transit. LOL. Anyway, the first paragraph of the article is ME all the way. I nag my kidz into responsibility. It takes alot to step back and let their wheels turn and figure it out for themselves. Last summer, my son was accepted into a pilot high school, and in order to go, he had to attend summer school to finish out his middle school credits or just go to regular high school. He decided to go to summer school after I explained, several times in several ways (he has ADD, too), the pros and cons of not going. Not only did he complete the requirement, he finished with an A in the class. The certificate is still on the fridge! Everyday is a challenge and I really appreciate EP's articles. They are a HUGE help every time I read them!

Comment By : luvmykidz

So, if he doesn't do his chores or clean up, who does it? Either way it seems like it will be difficult for me.

Comment By : twingles

You know I do the same thing as far as nagging and I give myself a headache. Now my 15 year old son is imitating me and he makes me laugh. It does make me think twice of my nagging, so i try and talk to him differently. Though it is very hard as a single parent but I do like your advice and will try them as well. Thank-You Gina n Santa Barbara

Comment By : Gina n SB

What to do when you stop asking a child to clean up and the room look like a trash pile? This child will not take a bath or try to clean up until you say something to her. She is 12 years old and I have younger children in my house;that not safe for others in the house.

Comment By : Love

My daughter got a habit to pick her clothes from the wardrobe, where they all are washed and hanged by trying them on and throwing them into the pile on the floor , on top of already worn clothes messing with shoes and so on. When she was younger I was trying to control that as much as possible by standing next to her and not allowing that to happen, but eventually I used to gather all and wash again. Now she is 12 and I do not have any power to control that. I am keeping all my clothes in order, trying to sort her clothes, so it will be easy for her to put them back. I am asking her to give me those of her clothes that need to be washed, when I am doing laundry. Last week I did laundry and washed only those that were in the laundry basket, reminding her that she has a chance to sort her clothes and the wardrobe and give me those that must be washed. She ignored it. Today she put on the only pants that are not in that pile, but have spots and went to school, and again she did not move anything from that pile to be washed. After I will clean the apartment and tight up everything I want to wash her clothes and organize her wardrobe again. Where is my fault, irresponsibility, or” jumping into her box”?

Comment By : anymother

How does the only responsible parent refrain from reacting (and nagging) when the natural consequences (of failing to feed the dog, for example) fall onto the parent (or the dog) and NOT the child? I have been holding my tongue (wow, it's so hard!) relating to homework reminders and my high school senior's grades are tumbling into an abyss of disappointment and excuses. He won't feel the consequences of his actions until January when all the COLLEGE REJECTIONS come in. By then, it will be too late, but it will indeed hit home. Couple this scenario with a parent (of divorce) who embodies and MODELS irresponsibility and I can only stand back and let the failures stack up? ARGH! This teen is smart enough to recognize(his Dad's) troubles due to acting irresponsibly, but he's far more into leisure and the availability of instantaneous social contact 24/7. Of course, Dad gave him an iPhone with unlimited everything! yeah! I don't want to be RIGHT, I want my son to thrive and succeed.

Comment By : holdurbreath

As mentioned by another parent, I also have a problem getting my son up and ready for school. Every day it's the same song and dance----and the earlier I get him up in the morning, the slower he gets ready. If I allow him to get himself up and ready---he simply won't go to school. What is the best way to handle this situation without nagging and lecturing? What is the best way to teach responsiblity when the child simply does not care?

Comment By : frustratedmom

I have been a single mother of my son for 14-15 years of his 19 yr old life. He has always been very gifted & intelligent. I worked very hard to take care of him, teach him right from wrong & how to be a good person, all whilst working numerous jobs, putting myself through school & having no help from his father. I had hoped he would learn from my example, but it seems that he has learned more from his pathetic, unattentive, substance abusing, bipolar father, than he has from me! I was forced to kick my son out of my home after he turned 18 because he refused to respect the rules, just like he'd done for the last 4-5 yrs. Living with him became hell starting around 14 yrs old. He pushed my buttons continually, refused to show me respect by following my house rules, refused to do chores or do anything I asked without making it a power struggle (dishes, cleaning, even just turning off the TV). When I kicked him out it was one of the worst days of my life; I cried horribly for hours & felt like a mother who'd abandoned her son. I gave him a couple more chances & he continued to screw up, which resulted in me kicking him out again! He's now in the county jail for pot possession, petit theft & failing to appear to court. He has no respect for any authority, myself included. Being a mother has been the most heart-wrenching experience; the heartache has been immeasurable. I don't know where I went wrong all of these years; I read so many self-help books, went to counseling, tried to get him to see a counselor, etc. The experience has not only left me very depressed, but also angry & resentful.

Comment By : Joann

Wow, these stories break my heart. I really feel for the parents out there. It's hard, and for some, really hard. We sometimes have to pick our battles. What is the main thing that we want our child to succeed at? Is it getting out the door on time? They don't necessarily have to be dressed in clean clothes, have their hair brushed or even have eaten breakfast, but just get out the door and get to the bus stop on time, consistently for a week. If that is your goal for your child, then work on that goal and the steps it takes to get them to reach that goal. It may mean purchasing an alarm clock that they pick out. Showing them how to use it, setting it to a station they like as loud as they like, giving them the responsibility to wake up at the time they need to get up and out the door on time. This may take a week or two to adjust and to work. Next thing you know, they're getting out the door on time - CELEBRATE their success. Let them know how proud you are of them, even though they'll think you're crazy. Then move onto the next goal, say getting their clothes into the laundry basket. Think small obtainable goals. That way they can see their success and believe in themselves. EP showed me this plan and it actually works. My kidz get out the door on time and wear clean clothes because they know that I only do the clothes that are in the laundry room. If it's not in there, it doesn't get washed. Homework is no longer a battle. There are other battles now, but I take them as they come.

Comment By : luvmykidz

* To ‘twingles’: Debbie says that it’s your responsibility in this case to provide consequences if your son does not do his chores. In other words, you can’t make your son do the chores, and yes you might end up doing them sometimes, but you can certainly hold him accountable. How you respond and how you act are all that you can really control. So you might establish regular daily chores and a time each day by which all chores must be done. If there are unfinished chores at that time, a certain privilege goes off for the rest of the day, such as the computer for example. And you’re right, this is really difficult! It takes a lot of work and effort to do what Debbie suggests here but as James Lehman says, “You have the parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had.” Here is an article about chores for more ideas on how to hold your child accountable for doing them: "I'll Do It Later!"6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘Love’: It might be a good idea to establish a daily incentive system to hold your daughter accountable for paying more attention to her personal hygiene. What this would look like is taking a shower or a bath will earn her extra time on a privilege she likes in the evening. For example, if she’s showered by 7pm, she can earn an extra 30 minutes on the computer or TV. As far as the room goes, if it’s as messy as it sounds you might need to help her break the job down into more manageable chunks. For example, perhaps her weekend doesn’t begin until she has picked up all the clothes and put them in the laundry or away in the closet. Perhaps the following weekend you focus on getting her to pick up the remaining objects on the floor, and so on. The idea of cleaning the entire room in one session might be too overwhelming for your daughter. Don’t be afraid to give her some hurdle help, too, and get her started, leaving her to finish the job by herself after 10 or 15 minutes of help from you.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To Jen: I can understand wanting your son to learn to be responsible and see his commitments through. The truth is, part of being a kid is trying out new things and figuring out what things you enjoy and what things you don’t. Many kids will try a new activity and decide they don’t really care for it. Remember: this is your son’s sports team, not yours. Whether or not he chooses to go and be on time is his choice—it’s in his box. What’s in your box is how your respond to your son’s disinterest. You will continue to feel like you are losing as long as you continue to take on this responsibility for your son. Instead, you might decide to let him quit the team, but perhaps he has to tell the coach himself in person and choose another activity to try. Or, perhaps you decide to hold him accountable to his commitment at home by telling him that if he’s late for soccer, he loses his video games for the rest of the day. By holding him accountable in one of these ways, you are teaching him responsibility without the nagging and lecturing.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘frustratedmom’: As long as you continue to do all the work here, your son will continue to make irresponsible choices. Try letting him get himself up. If he’s late, tell the school his tardiness is not excused and let him face the natural consequences at the school. Most schools will give an after school or Saturday detention after a certain number of these. If your son chooses not to go to school at all, your job is to focus on how you will respond to that choice. What we would suggest is to put all electronics on hold during school hours. So take a deep breath, step out of your son’s box, and focus on you. Our guess is that you’ll feel a lot better and that with a week or two of consistency on your part you will see some changes. Be aware that your son will try to get you to go back to your old ways during this—don’t take the bait!

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I was just thinking about this because I am a nag and when I start, I cant seem to stop myself. I HAVE BECOME MY MOTHER, YIKES! Thank you for these articles for it helps me to reflect on my habits that have resulted in the problems with my daughter. I know it is never too late and am willing to change, for I love her so much.

Comment By : Roshne

I must be honest that I always find somehing to take form each article. My son is only 8 but have caused me huge concerns. He is an amazing kid and at home the best behaved child, yet in school and socially with friends things always seem to turn sour and him being at fault. Reading your article made me think abouth how I am currently trying to help him take responsiblity for his actions and school and what a long term effect it will have. (never thought I would have to at such a young age) - however I think I am making things worse for him. At home we are strickt and they dont have much room for movement (making wrong choices) our lives are rushed and to get everything done in a day set to a routine driven by me. When I am not around he has to make his own choices - and at the moment he is still learning what effect those have. As hard as it is for me to see him suffer I will make an even bigger effort to step back and not NAGGG about the consequences and try and think a step ahead for him. Hopefully he will start thinking ahead for himself.

Comment By : Nag to much

To anymother, I was just like you and my son just like your daughter. I showed him how to do his own laundry. I told him it was his responsibility from now on. The first time he had no clean clothes,he got it. I am proud of myself because it was hard not to step in and do it for him. Now he does it himself and it is literally " a load off my mind"

Comment By : Linda cohn

I found this article very helpful. I find myself constantly nagging at my kids which in the end leads me to yelling and feeling very frustrated and at a boiling point. I have 3 kids ages 8 yrs, 5yrs and 11 mons. My husband is on the road for a month at a time and its just me at home with the kids. My 11mon old is a very wakeful baby she doesn't usually go to bed till 10:30pm-1am and is up two or more times in the night. So I wake up feeling exhausted and I sometimes have a hard time making sure the older two have everything together and I find myself constantly nagging at them in the morning. This morning my daughter didn't want to get her hair done up and I was repeating over and over why we needed to do her hair that it would get knotty and its hard to brush and it hurts you to get the knots out. She said she wanted her hair knotty. and out of pure frustration I said fine go to school with your hair down. but don't complain to me when I run the brush thru your hair at bed time. and then My son didn't put his wet mitts down stairs so they would dry the night before like he was supposed to and he forgot his extra pair of mitts at his friends house. So I told him he had a choice of wearing his damp mitts to school or he could wear a pair of his sisters mitts. He chose the wet pair. and I felt so irritated with him that he couldn't have listened to me yesterday about the wet mitts. But after reading this article and about staying in your own box. it made me realize that the kids can make their own decision and face consequences for their actions and that its really their problem and not mine. the fact that my daughter is going to have knotty hair is her problem and that is a consequence she will have to face for the decision of having her hair down. and the fact that my son might have cold hands at school will be his consequence for choosing to wear damp mitts to school when he should have worn dry ones. The idea of the boxes I think will help me keep me cool about certain situations and help my kids learn about consequences for their actions.

Comment By : mom of 3

To holdurbreath: I am in the exact same situation. It seems as though I have become the only one that cares about my sons future and because of that, I am the one he hates to be around. He doesn't have any consequences at his fathers house nor is he required to do any chores. I'm still in the middle of this struggle but I have realized that I have to step back and pray my son carries most of the morals and ethics I have taught him into his future. It's difficult enough to be a parent. It's even harder to parent a child who is split between homes. As difficult as it may be for those of us who want to actually parent and not just be our kids' buddies, we have to allow our children to make mistakes even if they are life altering mistakes. We have to allow them to fail to the point of having a difficult time picking themselves back up. Children will usually side with the "fun" parent but when they begin raising their own children they will have a greater respect for you. Please keep us updated on your situation. You touch more lives than you can possibly imagine. Thank you so much for your post.

Comment By : Mom that cares too much

Joann: My father in law told me once that kids are 50% what they learn from their friends, 25% who they are and 25% what we teach them. If there are two parents and one is rather worthless, there is less of a percentage he takes from you. Keep in mind that as parents, we do our best and we cannot take responsibility for how our children perceive things. How our children turn out is not always a reflection of our abilities as a parent. I struggle with my son on a daily basis and the different parenting styles of myself and his fathers are as wide as the grand canyon. I keep thinking that if only his dad would just go away and never come back. If only his dad had never been in the picture. I know it is childish of me to think things like this but sometimes the frustration turns me into a child that wants to just throw a tantrum like my 12 year old. You didn't go wrong as a parent. You did exactly what any other mother would have done. You kept fighting for yourself and your child. Hopefully, one day, your son will reflect and realize what an amazing mother you were. If not, know that you did an outstanding job. Forget the Grammy's, there should be an award show for moms like you! :) Don't be too hard on yourself and thank you for sharing your frustrations. You are not alone.

Comment By : Mom that cares too much

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