Instilling Responsibility in Today's Children
By Dr Marvin Marshall
If you find that disciplining your children and fostering a sense of
responsibility in them is stressful or unsuccessful, the use of
traditional parenting approaches may be the problem. Why? Because
traditional parenting approaches, including using lectures, rewards, and
punishments, rely on external motivators to change the child's behavior
and aim to obtain obedience and compliance. But telling young people
what to do, rewarding them if they do as expected, and threatening or
punishing them if they don't are counterproductive, increase stress, and
diminish strong parent/child relationships.
In fact, whether the approach is telling-based, rewards-based, or
punishment-based, the bottom line is that it's manipulation, which is
never permanent. All these approaches are something you do to another
person and have little long-lasting effect. This is in contrast to
collaboration or working with a person.
Whenever you impose something on someone, it only produces short-term
results because the person doesn't have any ownership in it. Think about
it...if these external motivational approaches were effective,
irresponsible behaviors would be a mere footnote to parenting, rather
than a leading cause of stress.
The irony of manipulating behavior is that the more you use it in an
attempt to control children, the less real influence you exert over
them. Clearly, manipulation breeds resentment. In addition, if children
behave because they are forced to behave, the parent has not really
succeeded. True responsibility means behaving appropriately because
children want to, not because they have to.
Here is the paradox: We want to assist young people to be
self-disciplined and responsible, and both traits require internal
motivation. Yet, lectures, rewards, and punishments are external
motivators and place the responsibility on someone else to instigate a
change. The challenge for parents is raising a child who will do the
right thing even when there is no threat of punishment, no lure of a
reward, and no lecture before and after the act. So how do you do that?
Following are some parenting techniques you can try today that don't use
punishments, rewards, or lectures and that internally motivate children
to act responsibly.
1. Challenge the Child
Every time you try to make children do something or not do something,
the children will likely resist. Children interpret the request as an
attempt to control them, and no one likes feeling controlled. However,
virtually all children enjoy a good challenge. They like to show off
their talents and prove how good they are at things. So instead of
trying to force a behavior, challenge your children to show responsible
For example, suppose you have a four-year-old son, and every time you
try to get the family in the car, your son jumps into the driver's seat
and refuses to move back to his car seat. Rather than bribe him into the
backseat, threaten to take away his favorite toy, or talk for 30 minutes
about why he needs to be safe in his car seat, offer a challenge. You
could say, "I bet I'm faster. I bet it will take you longer to get into
the backseat and buckle your seatbelt than it will for me lock the front
door and come back to the car." Then watch how fast the little one jumps
to his car seat.
Young children often know what to do. Having them demonstrate
responsible behavior merely takes some creativity, namely, "What can I
say or do to prompt them in a way that they interpret it as a challenge
rather than an attempt to control them?"
2. Put the Child in Charge
Everyone likes being in charge of something, even something small.
Adults and children alike need a sense that something in their world is
within their control. Therefore, if you want your children to exhibit
responsible behavior, put them in charge of the exact behavior you want
them to display.
For example, suppose you have a school-aged daughter who is always
getting up from the table during dinner, thereby disrupting the
environment you want to maintain during mealtime. In this case, think of
the exact opposite behavior of what your daughter is doing and put her
in charge of that responsibility. You could say, "Hanna, I need your
help. I want you to be in charge of having all members of the family
remain seated during dinner. Can you handle this?"
When put in control of something, children will always perform the
appropriate behavior because incongruity (doing the opposite of what the
person is in charge of) is very difficult for young people. This
approach to changing behavior immediately is foolproof. If it doesn't
work, reflect: Did you think of the exact opposite? Did you use the
exact wording of putting the person in charge and phrasing the
responsibility in positive terms?
3. Change Your Question
People know when they act irresponsibly, and that includes children. But
their knowing does not stop the behavior. While knowing the cause for
behavior may be interesting, it has nothing to do with changing that
behavior. Until the child accepts responsibility, he or she will not act
differently, even when the child knows the reason.
Therefore, rarely ask a child why the behavior occurred. "Why?" implies
that knowing the reason for the behavior would make a difference in the
future, but it does not. A more effective approach would be to ask,
"What are we going to do about it?" Then listen to what your child says.
You'll be amazed at how developed their reasoning skills are, even at a
young age. And when they outline the steps or actions that need to be
done, they'll have ownership of the ideas and will actually do them.
4. Empower with Responsibility
When children know that others are counting on them, and especially when
the child has an attachment to the adult, there is a great incentive to
carry through with the request. Children don't want to let down others
they care about. They want people to view them as someone who can be
counted on. Having children be responsible for something, such as a
family task, can have a significant effect on developing responsibility.
The task can be large or small-anything from feeding the dog to setting
the table for young children to mowing the yard or sweeping the driveway
for older kids. Realize that this is beyond a simple chore that the
child receives money for doing (which is a rewards-based approach). This
is about letting the child know you are depending on him or her to
follow through with this task, because doing it benefits the entire
family in some way.
5. Use Creative Phrasing
Rather than scold children or talk down to them, use creative phrasing
with a youngster who has done something that shouldn't have been done,
has misbehaved, or has had to suffer the results of a bad choice. For
example, you could say, "I know you didn't mean for that to happen. What
This phrasing sends the message that you think highly of the child
regardless of the negative situation and that you know the child didn't
want to end up with the bad results. It demonstrates empathy and opens
the gate for the young person to think back over the whole issue without
Make the Responsible Choice
As a parent or caregiver, your goal is to assist children to become
responsible, self-reliant, independent problem solvers; yet, external
approaches set up young people to be dependent upon an external agent.
Therefore, the ultimate goal should not be to have the child obey and
keep parents happy. The ultimate goal is that young people act in a
responsible way because it pays off for them; it is in their own and
others' best interests. Using the strategies outlined here will help
give your children both roots and wings. You will find yourself on the
parenting journey of raising responsible kids, with less stress and more
enjoyment for everyone involved.
Dr. Marvin Marshall is an American educator, writer, and lecturer. He is
known for his program on discipline and learning, his landmark book
Discipline Without Stress® Punishments or Rewards - How Teachers and
Parents Promote Responsibility & Learning, and his presentations about
his multiple-award winning book Parenting Without Stress® - How to Raise
Responsible Kids While Keeping a Life of Your Own. Visit
http://www.MarvinMarshall.com for more information.