Does your child ignore your requests to clean his room? Does he seem unable or unwilling to do even the simplest household chores? How do you teach a child to be responsible without nagging and screaming? In addition to being a mom herself, Janet Lehman, MSW, is a social worker who successfully ran residential treatment homes for troubled teens for years. Read on to learn practical ways to get your child to be more responsible.
Your child should have to earn independence by being able to handle responsibility.
EP: Janet, most parents have a tough time teaching their children to be more responsible. Some kids are really resistant and will argue with you over every request. Is it realistic to believe most kids can learn responsibility?
JL: Yes, I absolutely believe it is possible for almost all kids. Most of the teens I worked with in residential treatment centers had little or no experience with appropriate responsibility. By the time they left, they would often say to me, “I hated you at first, but you made me do things I’d never done before. You were tough but you helped me to change and to grow up.” I think that’s just how it feels sometimes for kids. Most of the time, they’re really not happy with you for asking them to do things. But when they reach adulthood, they usually understand that this is how you’ve helped them grow up.
EP: What would you say to parents who find themselves yelling, screaming and nagging their kids to do chores, homework, or other tasks?
JL: In my experience, yelling and screaming really don’t accomplish much. If you’re nagging your child over a task all the time, it’s probably the wrong task. In other words, give realistic responsibility towards realistic independence. One example is parents who buy pets for children. Realistically, most kids are not going to be able to take on the full responsibility of managing a pet. A younger child is not going to be capable of it and adolescents do not always have the focus to take that all on. Some pieces should be taken on by your child but other pieces are probably going to fall to you, more like a co-responsibility.
Look at how important the task is in your child’s life. Is it a skill they need to acquire at that point in time? Is it something that may have consequences if they fail to do it? If they don’t get up for school and they miss a class, it’s going to create problems in school and their grades might be affected. Other things, like making the bed every day, may not be as important and may not have particular consequences attached to it.
Either way, make sure, whether it’s a task of responsibility or a task of independence, that your child has the best chance to succeed. The goal is to coach, teach and support your kids in gaining independence so they can become independent, responsible adults. It may seem obvious to you how to load the dishwasher. But your child may need to be taught what goes where. By teaching him to do it, you’re giving him the chance to succeed.
EP: So it’s important not to bite off more than your child can chew when it comes to responsibility.
JL: I think parents need to take it step by step and be reasonable with their goals. Expecting perfection from kids who take on new responsibilities is probably not going to work. Be realistic and pick and choose what you’re going to battle over, if anything. And remember, you can always back down. Just because you’ve set something up, you can step back from it and reset your expectations if it’s not working. And always start with something smaller and easier; pick something manageable for your child.
This is why it’s also easier to start when your child is younger. Match the building of responsibilities with their age and their actual ability. You’re not going to expect an eight-year-old to rake the whole lawn or shovel the driveway by themselves, for example, but you might expect them to come out for half an hour and help you. If your child has a hard time keeping her room clean, you might want to set up areas in the room that have different purposes: a play area, a sleep area and a clothing area. This breaks the chore into smaller, more manageable parts, especially for a younger child.
EP: It sounds like this is the way to build independence in kids, too.
JL: You can’t really talk about independence without talking about responsibility. Your child should have to earn independence by being able to handle responsibility. You can start giving age-appropriate responsibilities to kids as young as five or six. An example might be an expectation that your first grader will get ready for school in the morning and begin to take care of his room a little. You need to help him at this young age by taking on the teacher and coach roles. Remember, you’re a role model for your child and you’re also encouraging and supporting him when he gets it right. Never miss a chance to catch your child being good.
EP: When you set an expectation for responsibility or an independent task and it’s not working, what can you do?
JL: I always advise parents to step back and assess the situation first. Step away from the argument and talk with your spouse about what’s going on. Regroup. Take a good look at what is working with that expectation for your child, and then look at what isn’t working.
There are 5 questions I think you can ask that will help you as you decide how to handle the situation.
- What things are really important to you as a family? If taking care of pets is really important and your child has a role in that, then as a family, that’s an important piece. But if no one else makes the bed in the family, for example, it may not be an important thing to expect of that child. This is what I mean by choosing what you’re going to do battle over.
- What things are really important to your child and their life? It may not be important to you that your child chooses their own TV programs in the evening. But for your child, it may be really important to do that. Or it may be very important for your six-year-old to pick out her own clothes. If these tasks give your child age appropriate independence, I say let them do it.
- Does the expectation contribute to the family or household? If your child has a responsibility to empty the dishwasher and that helps the next person who has to set the table, that’s a more important task than something that doesn’t have any connection to anyone else in the family.
- Can there be some give and take? Can there be a choice to do something similar but different? There may be something your child is more willing or able to do that might be more meaningful to the rest of the family. Remember, the goal is for your child to succeed at what he’s doing and to build on that success.
- Are there things you can do to help organize your child? Can you help structure that particular task or responsibility so that your child can be more successful? Setting it up so your child can more easily sort the recycling by having a designated area and special bins set up might do wonders to get the job done.
EP: What kinds of conversations should you have with your child about their responsibilities to the family?
JL: You may need to sit down with your kids and talk about all the things that you have on your plate and how you need them to help out. My husband James used to tell our son: “Everyone in the family has a responsibility for the family. Our job is to go to work each day and support the family. Your job is to go to school, learn, come home and contribute to the family.”
I think you should be clear with your child about the business aspect of being a family. Chores and school are part of your family’s business, and everyone has a job in that business. Phrasing it this way makes it easier for a child of any age to understand.
I know that things are tough for parents right now. There may be situations where one of you lost your job and you’re going to need to expect more of your kids than you might have in the past. Depending on your child’s age, you can sit down and talk to them about that openly and ask them, “Are there ways you think you might be helpful to the family?” And again, if things don’t work, regroup. Re-discuss. Look at your priorities.
When you’re giving your child a responsibility to carry out around the house, you might say, “Before you sit down and have your snack when you get home from school, please empty the dishwasher.” If you tie it in more logically to other things that your child is doing, he’ll be less likely to forget or do something else instead of that task. Some younger kids need visual reminders, such as a chart on the wall with stars. Other children just need some structure and some consistent expectations. And some kids just need to know that their parents mean it and that they’re not going to cave in with the new task or a new responsibility.
EP: How about if I haven’t asked my child to help out around the house, but now I need him to pitch in? Is it ever too late?
JL: If you haven’t built in this responsibility over the years, your child may become overly dependent on you. But remember, it’s never too late to start. So if you have a 14-year-old who’s never done dishes or made his bed or contributed to the family, you can still begin to teach responsibility now. Don’t throw it all at your child at one time; you’re still going to have to build up to it. If he’s 14 and he’s never done anything around the house, he probably doesn’t even think he can. You may have to show him how to make his bed or sort the recycles. We assume that kids know how we want things done, and the fact is, they often don’t. Even though your child may be older, if he’s never done these things before, you still have to take it step-by-step and build on skills. Your child has to be able to show some success.
EP: What if they just refuse? Do you give consequences?
JL: It depends on the task and its importance. If your child is not getting up to go to school, there are going to be consequences. He has to be able to go to school. If it’s something that’s less connected to his success, it may be more effective to find another task that’s going to be a little bit more successful.
Most people want to succeed at being responsible, and believe it or not, most kids really do want to be responsible. They don’t want to do a lot of work, but they want to feel like they are contributing members of the family. You might have to build that—and I know that with some kids, it’s harder than others. Keep that in mind and remember that you might have to teach some basic skills. Without those basic skills, your child may not know how to solve the problem of chores. And besides, aren’t teaching and coaching a whole lot less frustrating than nagging and screaming?