With two teenage boys living under my roof, I’ve been thinking a lot about how prepared they are to go out into the world. It has especially been on my mind as my husband and I contemplate how little time we have left with our 17-year old living under our roof full-time. As we work to help him prepare to take on the responsibilities of driving, working, dating, and going off to college, we constantly assess where he is and whether we have done or are doing enough. At the same time, we look at his 13-year old brother who is, in many ways, his brother’s polar opposite although raised in the same house with the same rules, and I’m pretty sure there are absolutely no secrets to raising a responsible child. I think a lot depends on personality type and some children take to responsibility more readily than others. Some kids thrive on it, while others resist it. Throw in challenges like ADHD and you really understand that no two kids act the same. That doesn’t mean you should give up on them or not try to help them get there. To that end, I thought I’d share a few guidelines we’ve followed over the years that seem to help.
1. Create Consistent Rules and Routines
In our household, we’ve always had consistent bedtimes, and stuck to routines. When my kids were little, we had dinner followed by bath and bedtime rituals that were consistent and happened at the same time every night. Like all parents, we did have the occasional battle of wills with toddlers who weren’t ready to fall asleep, but we reminded them it was bedtime and put them back in their bed with the flexible reminder that they didn’t have to go to sleep but they had to stay in their rooms and be quiet. We’ve never had fights over bedtimes and now that they’re old enough to set their own bedtimes, they know when they’re tired and need rest.
When they started elementary school, we established after-school routines that meant homework was to be done before playtime. My high school junior still gets his homework done before doing anything else except on days when his work schedule has required otherwise. On those days, he always does any homework immediately following work. Admittedly, for my younger son with an ADHD diagnosis, that hasn’t worked as well. It took many years of arguing and tears, but I finally figured out, letting him have a more extensive break after school before reminding him to sit down and get to work lessened our fights and gave him the control he needs over a situation in order to invest himself responsibly. We still have a consistent routine for him, but it looks different from the one that works for his brother. And he knows that if he doesn’t finish his homework, the consequence of a bad grade is his to deal with.
2. Increase Responsibility Incrementally
When you start leaving your kids home alone, you don’t go off and leave them for four hours or a whole day. And obviously, before you leave them alone at all you have to trust that they’re not going to endanger themselves or damage your belongings while you’re gone. Just as your kids earn your trust to stay at home alone by acting in a calm, safe manner when you’re home, they earn your trust to stay at home for longer periods by acting in safe and responsible ways when you leave them alone for 30 minutes, then in longer increments. The same strategy can apply to most other activities from walking or biking to friends’ houses at longer distances; earning later curfews by obeying rules and coming home on time; or earning the right to drive by taking on increasingly complex household responsibilities.
3. Encourage Responsibility Through Work
While modeling fiscal responsibility in the way you handle your own finances may set a good example, there’s nothing quite like helping kids find out the value of their own efforts. Whether you help your kids set up a lemonade stand, earn money by pet-sitting for your neighbors, babysit, or get a real job when they’re old enough, encouraging your kids to work and earn their own money makes a huge impact in teaching them fiscal responsibility. Once they know how many hours of effort goes into buying a video game, new clothes, dinner out, or even their first car, kids gain a greater appreciation for how hard you work, and have more gratitude for all they have. I feel like we’ve always worked hard to make sure we don’t spoil our kids and have balanced telling them “no” with rewarding hard work. Even if you reward your kids for grades or doing chores, they need the experience of learning responsibility by working for someone else.
Our 17-year-old started his own pet sitting business when he was in 5th grade and did it for two years until we moved to Chattanooga. He had several customers and learned a lot with that first job. Last summer, he started work at a local business and when he chose to quit because work was affecting his grades and he saw his manager mistreating other employees, we trusted him to make his own decision about quitting the job. He had shown his commitment to working and saving money so we knew he would not make a rash or frivolous decision.
4. Follow Through with Consequences
I may not have seemed like the most sympathetic mom when my kids were little. Skinned knees and scraped elbows, bumped noggins and bruised egos were met with hugs, kisses, Band-Aids, and usually a lecture about me having warned them not to do whatever led to the injury in the first place. And while I absolutely agreed with my younger son that there was absolutely no need for homework in every subject every night, the fact of the matter was that he had it and if he didn’t do it, he was going to get a bad grade. When he did, in fact, get a D in Language Arts my heart was with him, railing at his mean teacher, but at the end of the day, I had to hold him accountable and remind him that all he had to do to earn a better grade was turn in his homework. Sympathizing with him or getting mad at the teacher (even though I disagree with her methods) was not going to help him. In addition to letting him own his grade, we had to restrict his use of his iPad and require that he let me check his homework daily until he was doing it consistently.
5. Model Responsibility
The best way to teach any child responsibility is to model it yourself. From keeping promises to your kids, your family, your friends, your boss, or yourself to apologizing when you mess up or make a mistake, you can model responsibility every single day. Just by getting up every day and doing your job, you’re showing your kids what responsibility looks like. When you tell your littles, “No, Mommy can’t play with you right now because she’s cooking dinner,” then deliver a healthy meal at a consistent time every day, you’re teaching them responsibility. And when your kids hear you tell your friend that you can’t meet her for drinks because you promised your kids you’d take them out for pizza, you’re teaching them responsibility. And when you’re mad that you got a speeding ticket and you admit that it’s your fault for not paying attention to how fast you were driving instead of blaming the police officer or saying your town is a speed trap, you’re teaching your kids responsibility. They’re always watching and listening, and what greater responsibility do any of us as parents have than setting an example of how to live with respect and care for others…which is ultimately the best definition of acting responsibly.