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

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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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About James Lehman, MSW

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."

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