How to Raise a Responsible, Respectful Child: Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how to raise a respectful child.

Children can and want to be respectful, regardless of abilities or disabilities.

The same is true for responsibility. From the age of 2 throughout childhood, children want to “do it myself!” and help around the house. I know if you have a tween or teen who resists doing chores, this may not feel like a reality. However, kids can and do want to be independent and responsible because that is their ticket to a successful, independent adulthood.

Responsibility starts young

It is easier to get a 3 year old to set the table than it is to ask a 12 year old to start do the same. Pre-schoolers want to help and do what mommy and daddy do. They take pride in putting napkins on the table, matching socks after they are laundered and putting kibble in the dog or cat’s bowl. If you have young children, start giving them household tasks to do. Again, most children, regardless of ability can do simple tasks. And, remember, perfection is the enemy of done.

If your child is older and not too keen on helping out around the house, it isn’t too late. Assign them 2-3 things they can easily do at home. Maybe it is setting the table, feeding pets, sorting laundry by color. A diagnosis of ADHD, autism or executive dysfunction will not impair their ability to do these tasks.

However, they may need reminders to do the tasks and they may need repeated feedback on how to do the tasks appropriately or accurately. This is what teaching is all about: setting an achievable goal and helping our children learn the steps to reach it.

While perfection is the enemy of done, impatience is the enemy of success. What makes household tasks (not chores) difficult for your child isn’t their innate ability to do the actual task. It is the structure around the task that can be tricky. The timing of when and where and sometimes even how can become confusing or overwhelming. Given your child’s learning issues, it stands to reason these struggles would be expected. However, many parents are stressed and pressed for time and impatient to have their child “just do it” without a long period of learning and scaffolding. In many cases, parents give up and grumble about their child’s lack of responsibility or they engage in daily power struggles, nagging and yelling at their child to do these tasks “without being asked!” [However, after yelling about it every day, the child expects to be asked, even if it isn’t pleasant.]

Responsibility that feels good

A way to break out of the negative cycle of avoiding or yelling is to frame the process of owning their tasks as a part of growing up. Framed this way, both children and parents put less pressure on the process to be done “right” the first time and are more open to learning the systems and routines required to get it done in a way that minimizes stress and conflict.

As a learning process, we can break responsibility into 4 steps:

  1. Expectations of success
  2. Trial and error
  3. Learning routines and systems
  4. Positive reinforcement

Let’s talk about each in turn.

1. Expectations of Success

As mentioned above, your child’s diagnosis in no way impairs their ability to do simple tasks at home. If taught the steps, they can empty the dishwasher, set/clear the table, feed pets, take out trash, etc.

Some tasks will be objectively harder. Anything that requires organization, long term focus or has a lot of detail will be a challenge for your child. These include cleaning their room, putting their clean clothes in drawers, tidying bookshelves, cooking a meal from start to finish, etc.

Please set your child up for success. If you know the room cleaning is a painful process, let it go, or do it yourself until your child can manage it better. Instead assign your child tasks s/he can be successful with. You can be clear with them about the trade off, “I will keep your room neat in exchange for you taking the trash out every night.”

Also, keep negotiations to a minimum by being honest about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. If you child insists she will clean her room and not do trash, as her parent you may have to say, “Honey, I appreciate your desire here, but the organization is hard for you and the room has to stay neat. I promise not to snoop or invade your privacy, but when you are at school, I will get clothes off the floor and books on shelves. You can do trash without a second thought. Let’s start there and then move on to learning how to clean your room.”

A big part of your child’s success depends on you being forthright and honest about their strengths and weaknesses. When you place your confidence in what they CAN do, they are more willing to be open to learning new ways of doing the things that are harder for them.

2. Trial and Error

When you first give your child a task, let them start out on their own without a lot of your input. They may create a process that is different from yours, but still works. On the other hand, they may struggle and stumble and get frustrated. This is an expected part of learning. Tell them that. Rather than state, “This is easy, what is the problem?” or “Let me do it,” or “Do this, this and THIS,” simply state, “You are learning something new and that can be really frustrating. Let’s see if we can come up with a way to make it easier.”

Then make a suggestion and see what your child can do with it. This may not be a pretty phase. Some kids aren’t keen on this kind of help and feedback. However, if you keep placing this in a “learning something new” context, they may become more amenable to learning a new process.

3. Learning Routines and Systems

Ultimately, your child will need to learn some concrete routines and systems to be successful with increased responsibility. This process looks different for every child in every family and depends on what they are responsible for. Some families use checklists, some use alarms on phones/tablets, automated texts, calendar systems, post-it notes, etc. There is no one right way to set up a system for your child. I’ll outline one for you here just so you can get a flavor of what a successful routine/system program may look like.

Macy has a hard time getting her morning routine done independently and on time. Her mom is constantly yelling and nagging to get her to eat, get dressed, brush her hair and teeth and get her backpack ready before the bus comes. Both Macy and her mom want her to be more responsible for this morning routine.

In our work together, we developed a short check-list for Macy to use in the morning. She hangs it next to her bedside table and picks it up right after she takes her ADHD medication, which is placed on her alarm clock with a glass of water. Macy goes through her checklist while listening to music. She knows how long each task should take depending on the song. She has two songs to go to the bathroom, wash her face and hands and put on her clothes. She has three songs to eat and another three songs to brush her teeth and pack up to be ready to get out the door. Her last song is always the same so she knows how much time she has to finish up.

 If Macy gets behind, her mom refers her back to the checklist, rather than nag “did you get dressed yet?!” While she isn’t perfect in execution, the morning routine is much smoother for Macy and her mom and they are continuing to work on adjusting this routine and the system.

This is a system that works for Macy and her family. It may not work for your child, but every kid does have certain routines that resonate with them and it may take some time in that trial and error phase to find it.

4. Positive reinforcement

The tasks we ask our children to do are not always easy. All of us respond well to positive reinforcement. In this case, the reinforcement can take the form of verbal praise, high fives, a quick hug, a big “thank you,” a casual, “you rock,” etc. Our kids hear this and appreciate their parents seeing them being responsible. Sometimes we can get into bad habits of only pointing out the negative and assuming the positive is a given. Often when I praise a child for doing a moderately good job with a task, the parent will swoop in like Debbie Downer and say, “Well, she should do this anyway. It’s not something to celebrate.”

Imagine what that feels like to a child? Would you feel good about a comment like that from your boss at work or a loved one at home? Would you feel motivated to do more, go out of your way to be helpful? Would you be in a good mood?

People like and need praise. And not empty “everyone gets a trophy” kind of praise, but real, honest-to-goodness, I-see-what-you-did-there praise. If your child executes a task on time, notice and say, “You fed Charlie the Cat at 5pm! Did the alarm on your phone remind you? So awesome!” I guarantee your kid will try his best to do that task again the next day on time. Of course, you don’t need to lay it on thick every time they do what they are assigned to do. After a few days they are developing a habit and a neurological connection to doing that task and feeling good (because you made them feel good). A regular little high five or a comment of, “You are doing so well feeing Charlie!” will fuel their good vibe feeling for a long, long time.

Learning is Neurological

This process of learning is neurological. Your child’s brain will start to get into a “groove,” of doing the task, using routines and systems, and associating using those steps to do something good and to feel good about it. These connections happen via neurological connections in the brain. So while your child is learning their brain is changing!  And that takes time.

Be patient with yourself and your child. Associate good things with this learning process. Your child IS capable and wants to do things for themselves. They are no different than that 2 year old who wanted to sweep the floor imperfectly. We just need to give them the time and space to learn and feel good about that learning process.