How to Help Your Kids Learn to Behave Responsibly

How to Help Your Kids Learn to Behave Responsibly

I struggled for years to master basic parenting skills.  I wanted my kids to learn how to behave responsibly, but as most parents quickly realize…this isn't as easy as it sounds. 

Kids don't just wake up one day and decide to change their poor behaviors.  It's really up to us — the parents — to set behavioral expectations, hold kids accountable and then make the necessary corrections when they inevitable make yet another poor choice. 

I can exhaust myself just thinking about the dedication and consistency it takes to raise responsible kids!

Of course sometimes we experience those sweet moments of victory when it all comes together and we actually get to reward our kids for good behavior — that's the fun part of parenting!  But for me - and every other parent I know - the majority of the time we're responding to poor behavior and struggling to get our kids to change bad habits, learn life skills and develop solid character traits.

But how can we do this effectively…we can try punishing, yelling, spanking and stern talks that start to sound like a broken record.  But how do kids truly internalize and accept the lessons they need to learn?  And what methods lead to set-backs and actually keep kids from taking responsibility for themselves?

These are questions I've asked myself…and thankfully I found an excellent resource that answered these questions and helped me become a more effective and loving parent.  The resource is Parenting with Love & Logic and one of the most valuable things I've learned is around the impact of using empathy with consequences when teaching kids to take responsibility for their behavior.

Power and Control

Whether we want to admit it or not, our kids have a lot of power and control. 

They know that their behavior has power.  It can destroy a household or ruin an outing and cause a parent to explode in frustration.  And there are many things that parents simple can't control.  You really can't make your child do the right things.  But every child needs to learn self-control and the importance of healthy boundaries.

When kids misuse their power or cross the boundaries — and we know they will — unwise parents become angry and lose control themselves.  They might resort to bribery, threats or worse. 

But wise parents allow consequences to do the teaching.  And the key is empathy!

Empathy with Consequences

According to Love & Logic:  "Letting the consequences do the teaching isn't enough.  As parents we must show our empathy — our sincere, loving concern — when the consequences hit.  That's what drives the lesson home with our children without making them feel as though we're not 'on their side'." 

Put yourself in your child's shoes and imagine how each of these contrasting statements might make them feel — about themselves and about you:

Emma acts out and refuses to eat dinner with the family, then complains at bedtime about being hungry:

ANGRY WORDS:  "Of course you're hungry now...I told you to eat your dinner, but you wouldn't listen."

EMPATHETIC WORDS:  "Bummer - I know how that feels.  I get hungry too when I miss a meal…in the morning we'll have a nice big breakfast".

Johnny gets a low math grade on his report card:

ANGRY WORDS:  "Well since you don't do your homework of course you're gonna flunk math"

EMPATHETIC WORDS:  "Oh, how awful…I remember how that feels — sometimes I got poor grades too when I was a kid because I didn't apply myself.  What do you think you can do about it?"

Instead of putting ourselves up against our kids, lashing out in anger or engaging in a power struggle, it's more effective for parents to stay focused on offering empathy when kids make mistakes. 

Punishment vs Consequences 

Listen to what Love & Logic says about punishments:  "When we punish our children, we provide them with a great escape valve, an escape from the consequences of their action.  They never have to think when they're punished.  They don't have to change their behavior.  They think, I'm being punished for what I did.  I'm doing my time.  And their anger is directed toward the punisher:  us." (Parenting with Love & Logic, p. 100)

But appropriate consequences lead to self-examination and thought.  When kids experience a consequence for their poor choice — and a big dose of empathy — they are forced to ask themselves, Why am I hurting like this?  Their only answer is, because of my own choice.    

When parents give empathy, then allow the consequences to do the teaching — they don't have to waste time with long lectures, on-the-spot punishments or demeaning 'I told you so' messages.  These inevitably shift the focus from the child's behavior to relational tensions with their parent. 

In essence…the parent chooses not to take on their child's behavioral problem and instead allows the child to take responsibility for it themselves.

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How Consequences Build Responsibility

The truth is…responsibility cannot be taught.

Telling our kids to be responsible just doesn't cut it!  Responsibility must be caught and internalized.  This doesn't happen until kids experience opportunities in which they are held responsible for their own behaviors.

"Parents who raise responsible kids spend very little time and energy worrying about their kids' responsibilities; they worry more about how to let their children encounter significant learning opportunities for their irresponsibility" (Parenting with Love & Logic, p. 34 )

Naturally Occurring Consequences

Some consequences will occur naturally:  Emma experiences hunger pains in bed because she refused to eat her dinner. 

But this can be uncomfortable for a parent who may feel tempted to rescue the child by offering a bedtime snack.  If we want the consequence to do the teaching we must allow the child to experience them.

By allowing kids to feel the painful consequences of their actions we're subtly sending this message:  "I'm sure you'll make a better choice next time…but if you don't, you'll surely learn something from the experience".  This helps kids understand that they're capable of solving their own problems.  Parents show empathy, but they don't jump in to solve the problem or rescue their kids from the natural consequences.      

Imposing Consequences

Other times parents will need to impose appropriate consequences:  Johnny has to get his homework done before he can play video games because he chose to neglect his school work.

Imposed consequences need to be enforceable, they should "fit the crime" and be administered firmly — in a loving and empathetic way.  "It's such a bummer that you can't log onto your game yet…but I'm sure you'll do a good job managing your time and still be able to play video games". 

The parent stays supportive and commiserates, while holding the boundaries.  This is the only way for the consequences to benefit the child.  They'll have nobody to be angry with but themselves when we show sadness for their predicament.

Imposed consequences sometimes look like punishments, but when imposed without anger and threats they're received very differently.  They are most effective when presented in a way that the connection between the child's poor choice and the consequence they receive is very clear. 

Johnny's new protocol of homework before game time is not a punishment for getting a poor grade, instead he's experiencing a consequence for choosing to mismanage his time and neglect homework.  This allows the burden of responsibility to rest firmly on Johnny — where it needs be.

Knowing the Difference Makes a Big Difference

I'll leave you with one last excerpt from Love & Logic that (for me), really hits the nail on the head: 

"Allowing consequences while showing empathy is tough.  Anger is such an appealing emotion, especially when we use it on our children.  Punishment makes us feel so powerful.  It makes us think we're in control.  Anger and punishment, put in concert with each other provide a deadly duo of counter-productive parenting.

We are constantly giving messages to our kids, but the overriding message of all must be one telling them they're okay.  They may be having a hard time with their lives, they may have made a mistake and will have to live with the consequences, but we're in their corner and love them just the same.  Empathy about the consequences show our kids that kind of love.  It allows the logic of the consequences to do the teaching." (Parenting with Love & Logic, p. 108 )

QUESTION:  For you, what's the toughest part of raising responsible kids?  Leave a comment below…

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