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Teflon Kids: Why Children Avoid Responsibility—and How to Hold Them Accountable

by James Lehman, MSW
Teflon Kids: Why Children Avoid Responsibility—and How to Hold Them Accountable

Responsibility slides off kids like water slides off a duck’s back. It almost seems the way that nature meant it to be. Think of kids as being coated with Teflon, and nothing sticks—that’s how they relate to responsibility. In some ways, it’s no mystery: kids are born with no responsibilities, and everything they do is by instinct. They cry when they’re hungry or in pain, they go to the bathroom when they have to relieve themselves. There’s really no responsibility there, it’s all instinct and cause and effect. The idea that you are responsible for things is not inborn. Make no bones about it: that realization comes with coaching and training as children develop—it doesn’t just happen by itself.

Parents don’t always promote accountability, and that’s where the flaw is.

Another factor that has to be acknowledged is that kids love stimulation. And the fact is that most responsibilities are not stimulating—they’re boring and time consuming. Let’s face it: if work was fun, you’d have to pay your employer. So, kids seek excitement and gravitate away from boring things like, “Clean your room. Make your bed. Put your books away. Do your homework.” These are not things that stimulate people. These are things that stifle them, and as we all know, kids do not like that feeling. And by the way, it takes a lot of discipline and maturity to learn how to manage those mood states and stay on task.

Do parents simply forget to teach responsibility? Every parent I’ve ever met, no matter what other qualities they had, knew enough to tell their kids to wash and get dressed, that it was time to go to school or clean their room. But it’s not about saying the words; it’s about how parents react when their child doesn’t wash or go to school or clean his room. In other words, parents don’t always promote accountability, and that’s where the flaw is. You have to hold kids accountable for not meeting their responsibilities. Being held accountable requires that the parent make the consequence for not meeting the responsibility less pleasant than if the child had completed the task in the first place. And that act of being held accountable promotes a willingness to meet the responsibilities next time.

Many parents either don’t hold their kids accountable or don’t follow through on the consequences once they set them. I have to say that that just promotes more irresponsibility. Once again, the child learns that his excuses and lies and justifications work for him in his effort not to take responsibility for himself or his behavior. He also learns that things don’t have to be earned, and that society, as represented by his parents, doesn’t follow through. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the lack of accountability kids see rock stars, politicians or actors as having, for most of us, our nose is kept to the grindstone, both inside and outside of work.

So it’s vital to teach kids how to be responsible and follow through, and if they don’t, hold them accountable. But how can you do it effectively?

6 Ways to Teach Responsibility Today

  • Start as early as possible: As early as you can in your child’s life, start having them take responsibility for the things with which they’re involved. For instance, have your child pick up his toys before he goes to bed. Now, if he has a hard time concentrating on that because he’s young, get down on the floor and pick them up with him. But don’t do it for him. Even if you do “I’ll do one then you do one,” he learns to take care of his responsibilities. I also think you should give kids mild alarm clocks early in life. This helps them learn the responsibility of setting the clock at night and then getting up and shutting it off. What you’re doing is teaching them from a young age that they’re an individual and that they have their own individual responsibilities.
  • Identify responsibilities and use responsible language: When your child completes a task, tell them, “Nice way to follow through on your responsibility.” “I like the way you took care of that responsibility.” “You know, it’s your responsibility to do that and I like that you did it.” Use language like that. Say, “You know, I’m rewarding you because you met your responsibility.” In other words, the more you identify it, the more conscious your child becomes of it. I think it’s important for them to understand they’re getting rewarded for completing their responsibility, not for being cute, loveable or chummy. The earlier you connect the reward to the responsibility, the more clearly that becomes associated in your child’s mind.
  • The Power of Example: It’s important as a parent to meet your own responsibilities on a consistent basis, and to label it when you do. So you can say, “My responsibility is to go to work and I’m doing it today.” If your child asks, “Where are you going, Mommy?” Say, “I’m going to work. That’s my responsibility.” Or if they ask, “Where are you going, Dad?” Say, “I’m going grocery shopping. That’s my responsibility.” The idea is that you’re modeling the right behavior. You’re a prime example. As a parent, when you tell your child you’re going to do something, it becomes your responsibility to do it. So, don’t make promises you can’t keep. Be a prime example to your child when meeting responsibilities and be sure to use that language.
  • Teach and Coach Responsibility: I think it’s important to sit down and explain to children what responsibility means. Responsibilities are like commitments or promises—they’re the things you have to do, the things that are your job, and the things you’re involved in, where other people are depending on you. So if you play with your toys, it’s your responsibility to put them away. Or with an older child, you can say “If you make a sandwich for yourself, it’s your responsibility to put the dishes in the dishwasher.”

    Coach your child into meeting their responsibilities. I think it’s very important that kids be coached and not just lectured to. A coach doesn’t just go out and shoot the basketball shots for you. During the course of the game he says, “Great shot. Good shot. No, you gotta try harder. Do it this way.” And he coaches instead of criticizes. In the same way, I think it’s important to coach kids about their responsibilities.

    By the way, criticism has a place in life. But in this situation with kids, it only makes them defensive when you start to scold them about something that didn’t get done right.

  • Accountability: Responsibility should be associated with both rewards and consequences. “This is your reward for doing your schoolwork and homework.” “This is your reward for keeping your room neat all day.” “You’re getting this reward because you cleaned the car.” And by the same token, “This is the consequence for not finishing your homework.” “This is the consequence for not doing your chores this morning.” “You’re getting this consequence because you didn’t clean your room.”

    It’s sometimes helpful for parents to sit with their kids and draw up a list of consequences. How can you hold kids accountable? What do you have? You can withhold things like electronics. You can assign extra chores or extra work. You can give them task-oriented consequences. Associate a task with the time that the consequence is in play. And at the same time, come up with a list of rewards. We call this a “rewards menu.” Ask them, “What do they like to do?” This shouldn’t only involve spending money or buying things. Does your child like to take walks? Do they like to go to the park? Do they like to go down by the river or the ocean? Do they like to play catch? Do they like to swing? It’s fine to say to your child, “You know, you did really well today. I’m going to take you down and swing you in the swings.” And that’s the reward. Rewards don’t have to be expensive—you just have to use your imagination. For older kids, you can go hiking, go downtown, go by the river, go to the park. For teens, you can let them earn later bedtimes, or more time with their friends. With adolescents, the reward is getting away from you, not being with you.

  • Tell Your Kids What You’ll be Doing Differently: Learning how to meet responsibilities is one of the most important skills kids can acquire when they’re young. Certainly as they grow older, this learning will snowball and by the time they’re adults, they’ll have a thorough understanding of the relationship between responsibilities and accountability. Kids who don’t learn to meet responsibilities at an early age need to learn them at whatever age the parents get ready to teach it.

    When a parent decides they’re going to start using more responsibility/accountability language when they talk with their kids, they should sit down and clearly state that fact. In a calm time, say to your kids individually, “From now on, I’m going to start to point out how we meet responsibilities around here. So, you’ll have a clearer idea of how many responsibilities I meet and why I think it’s important that you meet your responsibilities.”

    With pre-teens and teens, you should have a discussion about why meeting responsibilities is important to your success in life. People who don’t meet their responsibilities are not successful. Now what does “not successful” mean? Well, for adults it could mean a range of things, but when you’re talking to a teenager or a middle school child, “not successful” means they’re not going to be able to afford an IPod. They’re not going to have their own car or have nice clothes. In other words, “All the things that I buy for you as a parent, you’re going to have to get for yourself someday. And in order to do that, you’re going to have to be able to meet responsibilities just like I do. And if I didn’t meet my responsibilities of going to work and doing a good job, I would not be able to give you those things.” Explain the idea with simple, straight talk that progresses from “This is why responsibilities are important” to “here’s what’s going to happen if you do—or if you don’t—achieve them.”

When kids develop personal responsibility, it gives them their best chance of avoiding many of the pitfalls of life that await them if they’re not careful. If they’re not aware of what’s going on and ready to take responsible action to deal with it, it makes them less able to deal with problems that surface as they get older. It seems that when you’re a kid, around every corner there’s someone saying, “You didn’t make your bed. You didn’t finish your homework” Or ‘Why didn’t you walk the dog? How come the dishes are in the sink?” But believe me, around every corner as an adult there’s someone saying, “Why were you driving so fast? Why are you late for work? Why didn’t you pick up the kids at school? I thought you were going stop for milk on the way home.”

There are those who say you should expect your child to act responsibly. But I say you should require it, even demand it. It’s a part of maturing, and it is a very necessary component to learning how to function in an increasingly complex and demanding world.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Great article. Thanks

Comment By : San Tropez

I found the article to be very skillfully written.

Comment By : Angela

I just love getting these free newsletters and I find them very helpful. I also forward them on to my relatives. I figure if they're so helpful to me. It would be for them to.

Comment By : Amanda

* Amanda, Thanks so much for reading and sharing Empowering Parents. We love to hear that EP is giving parents information, support and techniques they can use in their day-to-day lives!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

Mostly helpful. But I object that chores/work/responsibilities are arduous and that if we "liked" to work we would pay our employers. There is JOY in work, in meeting responsibilities, in doing a great job. Work is both necessary and can be powerfully fulfilling. Meeting our responsibilities is ever so much more than "boring" and "time consuming". If our approach is that work is awful and arduous then we aren't teaching kids the right attitude either. Ought we not be teaching our kids and grandkids that it is also JOYOUS.

Comment By : toneska

Always such a help, this Newsletter, it reinforces the Total Transformation prgram too!

Comment By : April

Dear James, I was resistant to purchasing your program. My husband did buy it on his own. I told him and wanted to tell you that I was wrong. Instead of feeling defensive about my failings as a parent I do feel empowered by your wisdom and suggestions. I just wanted to thank you. Sincerely, Kathleen L.

Comment By : Kathleen L.

This is so insightful and helpful for my situation in more ways than I can state, I feel supported as a parent because not only do you explain what is happening, why but provide solutions to these problems. Thanks for helping me to understand and create a happier environment at home and teach my child good habits to build a good foundation.

Comment By : Baileyfamily

I enjoyed reading this article and it has helped me fine tune some points with my sons. I have a question however? I have a brother 26, who has never learned to take responsibility or the consequences of irresponsibility. He is single and spends a lot of time at my moms house. We have been trying to talk to her about how she can help him. Do these same principles apply or would they need to be modified? Do you have any articles that might be of help for immature adults?

Comment By : Annie H.

* Dear Annie H.: Actually, we have a three part series on this subject that I think might really be helpful. It's called "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children." Good luck, and please let us know how it goes!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

I have two sons that I am dealing with a wide variety of issues with. One is a normal 12 year old and the other is a 10 year old with ADHD. My family has been attending counseling in an effort to help our home life be a more positive and constructive environment in the midst of all the issues. I read these articles and they are always touching on issues that I am dealing with. I can't tell you enough how much I appriciate receiving the free articles which are helping me put into prospective the way parents can cope and deal with everyday struggles. I greatly appriciate this outreach of support to parents and our chilren. Thank you very much.

Comment By : Kendra

* Dear Kendra, it sounds like you're facing a lot of challenges with your sons right now. Good for you for going to counseling and addressing the issues that are affecting your family. We're so glad EP is helping you in your parenting journey. Thank you for reading!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

I think Pres. Elect Obama needs James Lehman on his team. Obama is out searching for the brightest and the best.

Comment By : di

Dear James, Your 6 Ways to teach responsibility are very effective. I think some parents may neglect teaching responsibility because they don't have a natural format. Talking about values like responsibility may seem like lectures which kids hate. I tell my readers to teach values during weekly family meetings that are structured, complimentary, and fun. Again, James, your article is helpful and needs to be read by many parents. Thank you for writing so clearly. Jean Tracy, MSS

Comment By : Jean Tracy, MSS

What are your thoughts on 'natural consequences' to teach responsibility and accountability? For example, if my 5 year old son doesn't put his toys away, he has to live in a messy room and he has to spend time and energy searching for that specific toy he wants to play with if it's not in it's 'proper place'. I'd like to hear your thoughts on this approach....

Comment By : Aimee

* Dear Aimee: I like natural consequences a lot. But remember that they are not a controlled consequence. Sometimes they are the perfect experience, sometimes they are very harsh, and sometimes they end up not being practical. I like to encourage parents of teenagers to give teens the chore of doing their own laundry. It has great built-in natural consequences. You want to wear that item and have it be clean when you wear it, you need to plan ahead or it won't be available. So you always have to judge if a particular natural consequence makes sense. I don't see anything really wrong with your consequence, but I wouldn't want it to become the housekeeping habit of someone who is five years old. It's a good age to help him learn skills. Those skills include doing things you don't really feel like doing, balancing your activities during the day between school, family, chore time and free time, etc. You could consider setting up a system where there is a time of day when he does a 'quick sweep' of the room. Try not to make it too close to bedtime--when kids are usually overly-tired. Choose a specific time on the clock, however. If you say, "Do it before you go to bed," then it just gets put off and causes problems. The consequence for not picking up his room at the specific time could be that toys not put away at 'quick sweep' time are put in a box and given a 'time out' for 24 hours until they can come out and play again. If you choose to try this method, tell your son your plan ahead of time and say, "So do your best to get your room all picked up at 'quick sweep' time." Good luck!

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

As I have already scheduled a first counseling session for my defiant, grumpy, disrespectful 11 year old as well as one for myself...I feel I am more clear on my part of the equation, having read several articles this morning. I see how my past works into the problem, and where I make mistakes. I am VERY THANKFUL to this newsletter offering precise attitudes and language to employ. You are generous to offer this resource to parents everywhere seeking a sense of healing in their families. Finding common ground with other parents gives me courage to continue to hope.

Comment By : RMP, WA

I don't know what I did before finding James Lehman. So my 13 year old son - yes the defiant child that gives me many grey hairs. yesterday I decided that he needed to learn how to do his own laundry. To my amazement he was open to the idea. this morning he came to me while I was on the phone. I explained I was on the phone he wouuld have to wait. expecting a grunt, snide remark or continued interruption - "it did not come" I was aghast. When I completed my call I said "ok Thorin you wanted to speak to me" "oh yeah Mom - err I forgot oh no I know what I wanted to say" "ok (Mom) "this is Tuesday right!" "Yes" "Well you know how I am supposed to do laundry on Wednesdays" I replied "yes" "Well I have only 1 set of clothes in my dirty laundry basket" "I resisted the laugh" Instead I kept a straight face and replied "ok but where are we going with this" "Well Mom I have only one set of clothes to wash what should I do" by now I am bursting but managed a straigt face "Thorin you mean you have only worn one set of clothes in two days!" "Well no Mom but my clothes from the other days are already in the laundry room" "well make sure you use your own basket" "I will Mom but I only found out about this yesterday" "hmm I see Thorin - good point" "let's see what should we do? (Mom) Mom "how about this Thorin - I have some laundry myself that would make a full load. What if you do the wash and in turn for you adding my laundry to yours I will handle the drying and the folding. does this sound reasonable? Thorin "yeah that is great we can do that" This was really special to me only because such a dialogue would never have taken place even a month ago. My little lord child is slightly OD and everything is always an argument, manipulation or at the very least he has always felt that it is is duty in life to NOT GO WIth THE FLOW :) Perhaps our statement of the week "change is only one choice away" hit home at least today.

Comment By : AnneMarie

Wow, very straight forward. I was stuck in the 'single parent guilt trap' I can't be with my kids because I work so I will give them everything that I can. WRONG! Now I have a 9 year old 'princess' who demands everything, tries to order me around and threatens to put ME in time out or to run away if she doesn't get her every wish satisfied! Definitely time to put both feet down hard!

Comment By : Super Mom; Not

I find this article to be very appealing to my current household situation. I have 3 children ages 6, 11, and almost 13. I work full-time and they are at home alone. My older 2 kids dad (my ex) passed away this past September and so therfore my children have no place else to go but home. They would usually spend alot of time with him as he was laid off from his job and really wasn't the "hard" working type. I am finding myself in screaming matches most of the time with them. I have asked them several times to clean up after themselves; ie, breakfast and lunch dishes. I take lunch around 2:30 and most days I have left them a chore list to be done by the time I get home for lunch. More often than not an hour before I am to get home one of them is calling and complaining that the other didn't do their chore so I can' do mine. Then there is the infamous cleaing of their bedrooms. My girls share a bedroom and it is most days a complete disaster like a tornado hit it. I ask them specifically to clean it and organize it how they want it; and yet I come home and because my youngest didn't help nothing changes. I absolutely hate summers for this very reason. I wish school was all year around. Forgive me for having such a bad attitude; but I am so frustrated with their behavior and I do not know how to turn it around. I take game controls, and DS's with me to work everyday thinking that maybe this would snap them into reality; however it has yet to work. It is very difficult for me to control their TV watching when I am gone 7 hours out of the day. I have also changed the password on my laptop and desktop otherwise I would find that they were playing games on it for the total of 7 hours I was gone. Please, does anyone have any suggestions. I am so frustrated; I don't even feel like a mom anymore I feel more like a drill sargeant with no response. Also did I mention my oldest and youngest are ADHD.

Comment By : Mommyof3

* Dear ‘Mommyof3’: We’re sorry to hear about the loss of your children’s father. If you see that they are having some difficulty in dealing with this, don’t hesitate to get them some professional help. There may be grief counseling groups available through your kids’ school systems. James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation Program says that when we give a kid a job, we have to ‘check in’ on them. Some kids need more supervision then others. Kids with ADHD have difficulty staying focused and completing tasks so you will need to re-direct those kids fairly often. James writes there’s nothing wrong with helping them to ‘get started’ or to remind them to ‘get back on track’. Many times when parents are not home so kids lack adult supervision, the kids do not accomplish their tasks. James recommends giving them a choice: they can have free time in the afternoon while you’re at work and then do chores when you come home, or they can do chores while you’re at work and have free time in the evening. He recommends giving the kids an incentive to comply with this system by removing privileges if they do not do their chores. But remove privileges just for that day so the next day they have a new opportunity to do their chores and earn privileges. For more ideas on using the Program, call us here on the Support Line. We want to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

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