Making Kids Take Responsibility

A good friend of mine has recently shared how frustrated she was when her teenage daughter once again left the kitchen a mess after making herself something to eat. 

A lesson for parents and children in taking responsibility

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

I’m going to tell her she can’t use the kitchen for the next three days so she’ll understand how frustrated I am with her!”

“Hmmm,” I mused. “I’m wondering if you might consider another option that will make it easier for you and give her back the responsibility by following the rules.”

“You have my attention,” she said, smiling.

Describe the problem to her, i.e., that she did not clean up after herself last time she made a snack, and on more than one occasion in recent weeks. Then tell her that she may no longer use the kitchen until she comes to you with a specific plan for what she will consider doing in order to make amends to you for having to clean up after her.

“She could also include what she will agree to do in the future. Tell her that only after she comes up with something that is acceptable to you can she once again have kitchen privileges. That way, it becomes her problem and her responsibility to make amends as she comes up with a creative solution.

“You are giving her the power to gain back her right to use the kitchen in a timeframe she determines, and you have the ultimate power because you are the one who can accept or refuse the plan she comes up with.”

A fair and responsible solution

My friend seemed pleased that she could engage her daughter in a process that was not punitive but rather encouraged her to take responsibility for something she had done that was unfair to her mother.

Using the you-need-to-make-amends-and-come-up-with-a-plan response means a parent does not need to follow through with the arbitrary “you can’t use the kitchen for three days” decision. Nor must parents endure the inevitable resentment or the vengeful feelings children experience when they are punished.

It also spares a parent from the inevitable whining and pleading that often follows punitive consequences. After all, the child gets to determine when she can use the kitchen again and the parent no longer has to monitor when that happens.

By responding with the directive that a child has to figure out a way to make amends and create a plan for future behaviors, the child determines how long he or she loses a privilege and in turn, gains the opportunity to be both responsible and respectful. A win-win for everyone!

Invitation to reflect:

1.      When your children break rules or neglect responsibilities, how often do you respond with more punitive consequences versus giving them the freedom to fix the problem?

2.      Consider how you might turn the responsibility back onto your child to come up with a solution that is acceptable to you as a way to regain privileges. Remember that you need to be satisfied with whatever suggestions your child makes. (If you’re not completely satisfied, you can say, “That’s not acceptable because… Bring back another plan and I’ll consider the changes you have made. I believe you are creative enough to think of a way to make adequate amends we can both feel good about.”)

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network