My oldest son Marco (9), has never been one of the more responsible kids for his age. He hardly ever cleans up after himself, so his room is a total mess, and his things are strewn randomly around our house. He hardly ever helps his younger brothers without prodding. He very frequently loses things. He hardly ever says “please” or “thank you.”
Other adults who have observed Marco’s behavior have blamed my wife and me for poor parenting, either explicitly, or to themselves. That’s embarrassing, to say the least.
So, why don’t we “do our job” and stop this irresponsible behavior? Most parents adopt one of the following two strategies to avoid the sort of irresponsible behavior that Marco exhibits:
Do Things For Him: In other words, we could remove the need for him to be responsible. We could clean up for him, help his younger brothers without asking for his help, organize his things for him, etc. We don’t do this nearly as much as many parents do.
Force Him to Behave Responsibly: We could use various parenting tactics – some combination of punishments and rewards – to mold his behavior. So, for instance, we could ground him until he cleans his room, or we could pay him an allowance to do this.
I have set up one huge reward, or carrot, for Marco to exhibit responsible behavior. I’ve told him that when he shows me he’s responsible enough, I’ll get him an iPhone. I’ve set up no daily point system for him to see how close he is to getting to the iPhone, but he and I do periodically talk about how close he’s getting. Just this past week, he suffered a setback when he lost his heavy jacket, and I told him that delayed his iPhone back “a few months.”
Outside of this one huge carrot, my wife and I take a different approach to teaching Marco to be responsible. We clearly indicate to him what we think he ought to do, and we engage him in numerous conversations about why we think he should clean his room, help his brothers, organize his things, etc. For instance, regarding helping his brothers, my wife and I often remind him that we parents always do things for him and his brothers before doing anything for ourselves. We talk about the privileges he has as the oldest brother (e.g. he gets new stuff, not hand-me-downs), and that he must take responsibility for helping them to earn these privileges.
Then, we sit on our hands and wait. And grit our teeth. He fails, again and again, and we keep reminding him.
In other words, we let him fail to meet our expectations repeatedly, hoping that someday, with our guidance, he’ll start to “figure it out” for himself and become more responsible.
Boyyy, it’s tough watching him fail. Besides the fact that his failing repeatedly can hurt his confidence, it also makes running our family life more difficult. And lastly, it’s embarrassing for us when other adults pass negative judgement on us as parents.
I’m very happy to report, however, that we’ve finally begun to see a glimmer of hope that our strategy is paying off. Marco’s turnaround started quite suddenly, without warning, a few Sundays ago. We had just returned from a long day out.
As soon as I opened the doors of our minivan, he began to pleasantly surprise us. Normally, he would just jump out of our minivan and into our house before anyone else. This time, though, he helped his little brother out of the minivan. Then, he went to the trunk, grabbed two handfuls of bags, and took them inside. Then, he came back and grabbed two more handfuls and brought those in. Once we had everything inside, he grabbed dirty clothes out of several bags, brought them upstairs, and put them in the washing machine. He helped one of his younger brothers change clothes for bed and brush his teeth.
You get the picture. He was a responsibility machine that night. He wouldn’t stop. At 10PM, I had to force him to go to bed. When I asked him why he was doing these things, he replied, “I didn’t realize it before, but doing these things is fun.” At some point that night, he wrote the reminder note to himself that is shown at the top of this article. It reads like a list that strict parents would draft for their kids.
Of course, Marco hasn’t sustained this level of intensity, but I would certainly say that he’s more thoughtful about being responsible than he was before that Sunday evening. When he shirks a responsibility, I remind him of his personal vows to be more responsible. That usually grabs him, and often, he’ll go back and do the right thing.
He’s continuing to write notes to remind himself to be organized. For instance, on a new desk that I built for him, Marco put the notes pictured on the right. I’m adding lots of features to that desk to help him get organized – two huge magnetic whiteboards, lots of fabric bulletin board space, and lots of drawers, shelves, and cubby hole spaces.
Because Marco has found strong motivation within himself to be responsible, I think he’ll eventually be better at it than if my wife and I had forced him to act responsibly through penalties and rewards. He’s thinking a lot about how he can improve, and he’s creating his own systems to be organized.
To date, the change in Marco is primarily limited to his awareness of his failures to be responsible. He still routinely leaves his things all over the place, loses them, ignores his brothers’ needs, etc. In fact, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, he just lost his winter jacket last week.
I no longer worry that he’ll grow up to be an irresponsible adult, though. Because he’s decided to figure it out on his own, I have faith that he will.