Many parents spend enormous amounts of energy lecturing their kids about the importance of being responsible. Often to no avail. Despite the lectures, your kid still won’t clean their room, empty the dishwasher, complete their homework, or apologize to their little brother.
To your child, it probably just sounds like nagging. And for good reason. It is nagging. And it’s an ineffective parenting technique.
Let me explain. Constant lecturing to your child gets in the way of his ability to be emotionally separate from you. You think you’re lectures are helpful, but they actually aid his irresponsibility. That’s because he’s functioning in reaction to you instead of being responsible for himself.
Think of it this way. If you jump into your child’s world—his “box” as I like to call it—and tell him what to do and how to act, then how responsible for himself can he become?
Instead, try to stay in your own box, maintain your boundaries, and take responsibility for your actions, not your child’s. Your actions should be focused on clearly stating the rules and holding your child accountable with effective consequences if he doesn’t follow the rules.
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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 at the same time you’re scurrying around to get food on the table for him.
You continue to criticize him for his inconsiderate attitude while waiting on him hand and foot.
A better way to handle it is to tell him if he doesn’t let you know he’s coming home for dinner by 4 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 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 is a choice. Respond to those choices from your own best and most responsible thinking and actions.
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, inspiring individual who he respects.
Here are four tips to help you put this into practice.
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 initially, it results in a more responsible parent-child relationship. Without the pause, it’s easy to let your emotions lead you astray.
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 applied anywhere and ended up just 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. 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 this case, is 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.
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.
Also, don’t ask generally “What do my kids need?” Instead, be specific. Ask “What does this particular child 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.
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. These signs include feeling frazzled, at the end of your rope, and frustrated.
Typically, when you feel calm and engaged in your own interests, you’re probably 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. In reality, we are preaching, not teaching. And guess what? This only creates more dependency. And dependency in relationships doesn’t encourage kids to be responsible for themselves.
If you can do this then you will create a healthy emotional separateness between you and your child. Why is emotional separateness important? The more emotionally separate you are, the freer your child is to see himself more clearly. You’re no longer in his box or in his head, telling him what to do all the time, which gives him the opportunity to become responsible for himself.
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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.