Children become personally responsible when parents role-model taking personal responsibility for their own feelings and needs. In addition, children need to be allowed to make their own mistakes without punishment and to fail without a loss of love. Children learn responsibility when their parents set firm limits regarding what is and is not acceptable.
Let’s take an example – bedtime. In many households, bedtime is a nightmare for the parents of young children. Typically, the parents nag about getting ready for bed and the children resist – dawdling and ignoring the parents. The parents are tired and want some time for themselves, so the conflict escalates until the parents are yelling before the children finally capitulate. It’s not much fun.
When our children were young, we set a firm limit regarding when we would be available to tuck them in, spend some loving and cozy time with them, read to them, and so on. We said, “We will be available to put you to bed at 8:30 (or whatever time was appropriate for each child). If you are not ready at that time, you will need to put yourself to bed. You can stay up as late as you want, but you cannot disturb us, each other, or watch TV.” We taught them how to read a digital clock by the time they were three so that they knew what time it was.
The result was that each of our children tested this out a couple of times and stayed up very late. Finding themselves bleary-eyed the next day, they discovered that they needed their sleep to feel well. They also discovered that they looked forward to the cozy time with us before going to sleep and didn’t like the loneliness of putting themselves to bed. Therefore, they got themselves ready for bed and would come to get us to tuck them in.
I’ll never forget the time my three-year-old daughter came into the living room where we were spending time with friends and said in her little indignant voice, “Mommy, it’s time to put me to bed.” Our friends were stunned that this tiny child was ready for bed without a fuss, and even asking to be put to bed!
Another chaotic time in many households with young children is getting up and ready for school. Again, parents nag and yell as children dawdle – not getting dressed, not eating their breakfast. Parents are often exhausted by the time their children finally leave for school.
Once again, it is important to make this their responsibility, rather than yours.
If you teach your children how to set their alarm, then they can be responsible for getting themselves up on time. If your children are in a carpool or if you take them to school, let them know that they will have to get into the car in whatever state of dress or undress they are in, when it is time to leave, whether or not they have had breakfast. If they are still in their pajamas, hand them their clothes and they can put them on at school.
If this happens one time with one of your children, it will never happen again. They will know you mean what you say and will be ready on time. If they walk to school, let them know that their lateness is their responsibility and that you will not give them notes to excuse their tardiness.
They will have to take responsibility for the consequences of their choice to be late.
How about getting children to brush their teeth? Rather than nag at them every night, we told our children that if they got cavities as a result of eating badly or not taking care of their teeth, they would have to pay for them out of their own money – money they worked for or received as gifts.
Respecting the Limits
The point of all this is that when you are clear regarding your own limits about what you will and will not do, and you stay solid in your limits, not allowing whining or crying and tantrums to sway you, children will learn to respect your limits. What we all want for our children is for them to be personally responsible. This has to start early so that by the time they are adolescents, they have a good foundation for making responsible decisions.
You might be able to control your children to a certain extent with yelling, punishments, and threats while they are young, but once they reach adolescence and are likely bigger than you, you will have no control at all. So rather than trying to control them, your energy is better spent setting a good example and controlling what you can control – you and your own limits.
Setting your own limits and setting a good example of responsible behavior avoids the power struggles and resistance that plague so many family interactions. We want parenting to be fun rather than a burden, and it can be when you decide to take care of yourself and allow your children to suffer the consequences of their own decisions, other than in issues of health and safety.
For a further understanding of these concepts, read Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By My Kids?
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