Our children need to figure it out and direct their own behavior. (Part two)

This is a continuation of our look at principle six. We have already looked at opportunities that occur during development & discipline moments. As with my other blog posts, this is rough draft material from the parenting book I am writing.

Opportunities that naturally occur in our children’s daily life:

Real life problems that need real life solutions are perfect opportunities for our children to learn how to figure things out and direct their own behavior.    

A three year old boy accidentally spills Cheerios all over the floor.

A daughter wants something she does not have the money for.

A fifteen year old boy breaks a window by accident.

Someone steals our son’s bicycle from the school bike racks.

No matter what the situation, the responsibility needs to stay where it belongs.  We did not spill the Cheerios, break the window, or damage the car.  It was not our bicycle that was stolen.  Our job is to gently guide our child through these situations, not take on the responsibility.  

“What are you going to do about that?”

“How are you going to make that right?” 

“Good luck, and let me know what happens.”

“I will gladly show you how it works, but you will have to do it.  So pay attention.”

“Son, this is not my problem to solve; this is your problem to solve.  Let me know if you need any help.”

Empathy and loving support is always helpful.  Sometimes we will need to help and encourage quite a bit if the child is young and the problem is big.  Even in those cases, the problem is still the child’s responsibility, and it is important the child knows that.  If the problem is well within the child’s abilities and understanding, we should not be helping at all.  Absolutely no rescuing unless it’s a life or limb thing!

A three year old boy accidentally spills Cheerios all over the floor.

Our three year old son takes the Cheerios box, loses control, and drops it on the floor spilling hundreds of Cheerios.  We should not freak out, or yell, or lecture, or shame and condemn.  Let’s say this is the first time this happened.  Since we are not dealing with a pattern of behavior or a reckless behavior, we will simply require that our son be responsible for his accident.  

“Ugh oh.  That’s OK.  The Cheerios spilled.  Accidents happen.  You need to pick them up right now before you do anything else.  Do you know where the small broom is?  Be careful picking up the box so more don’t spill out.”

“I don’t know how!  There are too many!”

“That’s OK.  I will show you and you can do it.  This is a good thing to learn how to do.”

Guide him as he picks up every single Cheerio and puts them in the trash.  Do not ever let him think for a moment this is not his responsibility.  He does not eat or do anything else until he has done a good job.  We will learn what to do if he refuses later in the workbook.  For now, stay focused on what this principle is about.

We never want to separate the child from his responsibility for undoing or cleaning up his mistake.  If he spills, he cleans up.  We must keep those two events connected.  Many parents lecture, scold, and even punish a child for an accident, but they do not require the child to clean it up or make it right.  That approach has many shortcomings, but the one relevant to this principle is that it destroys the connection we are trying to make.  You spill it, you clean it up.  No need for drama.  We teach responsibility by requiring responsibility from our children in real life situations.  That is the best way for them to learn it.

Some of you might want to take me to task for making cute, precious, little children clean up their own messes.  It wasn’t their fault after all; it was an accident.   What if he broke a glass?  Are you going to make a three year old clean up glass shards?

First of all, I don’t believe in “making” or forcing anybody to do anything.  But to answer your question - no, I would not let a three year old pick up glass shards.  I will gladly and cheerfully clean up the broken glass for him.  If he is upset, I will comfort him and let him know that accidents happen.  I will, however, have him watch the whole process so he learns what is involved.  It is important that he sees and understands the whole process: broken glass or other mistakes do not just magically disappear; someone has to carefully clean them up.  

It will be a nice teaching moment.  Later, I will have him help me with some other task since I cleaned up the broken glass for him.  I will then thank him for his help, and hopefully he will thank me for mine.  Until he can safely clean up broken glass himself that is how he can still take responsibility for his accident.  When all goes well, our children learn both responsibility and life skills through this approach.  That is exactly what we want to happen.  

At what age should we start holding our children responsible for cleaning up their own messes?  There are no hard and fast rules.  It depends on the child’s maturity and ability and how difficult the mess is.  Most two-year old are capable of putting simple toys away.  As long as your child can handle it, earlier is better.  Remember, parents tend to underestimate their children’s abilities.  (I have watched a five year old girl do her own laundry.  I was afraid she was going to fall headfirst into that top-loading washing machine when she reached down to pull out her clean clothes.  I think five is a little young, but this was well within that child’s capabilities.)

Some parents never quite get the hang of this.  It is not uncommon for these parents to still be trying to clean up their children’s messes even though those children are now adults.  These children never learned how to clean up their own messes.  We are no longer talking about spilled Cheerios.  We are talking about financial troubles, relationship troubles, drug and alcohol troubles, employment troubles, trouble with the law, etc.  Be the parent your children need you to be.  Require them to clean up their own messes.  Later, (sometimes way later) they might even thank you.

A daughter wants something she does not have the money for.

Our daughter has decided she “needs” a special new top for the big party this weekend, but she does not have enough money.  She knows she has already used up her clothing allowance for this month.

We do not want to distract from the real opportunity here by making it personal or shaming and condemning.  “If you hadn’t spent so much money on those horrible shorts, you would have the money you need now.”  “Why are you always asking me for money?  Your sister never does that.”

We also do not want to miss this opportunity by rescuing.  “Here is the money you want.  Have fun at the party.”  We set up the monthly clothing allowance so our daughter could learn how to budget and learn the difference between wants and needs.  If we just give her money anyway, she will never learn how to control her wants or handle money well.

Remember, our goal is that she figures it out and directs her own behavior in a responsible manner.  We might try an approach like these.

“I bet you would look great in that top.  Let me know if I you need a ride to the mall.”

“But mom, I don’t have enough money!”

“I know.  When you figure that out, let me know if you need a ride.”

“I am sorry you don’t have enough money for that top.  I don’t like it when I don’t have enough money for something I want.  I hope you figure something out.  Let me know what you come up with.”  (By the way, stealing is not the kind of figuring out we are looking for.  If you are actually worried about that possibility and she shows up with the new top, make sure you follow up with your request to know what she figured out.)

And there is always the absolute classic, “What are you going to do about that?”  

The important thing is to keep the responsibility where it belongs.  This is our daughter’s problem to solve, not ours.  We could loan her the money with interest if we feel she is ready for such a lesson.  If she abuses the credit, we simply cut her off and garnish her allowance until she is paid in full – interest and principle.  No debt forgiveness.  Going through that experience will teach her more than a thousand lectures ever could.  Better she learns these things now and not have her car repossessed later in life.

A fifteen year old boy breaks a window by accident.

This actually happened to me at a friend’s house.  We were playing basketball in the driveway.  When I passed the ball to Kevin, the ball bounced funny and broke a basement window.  His mom did not get mad at all.  Instead, she calmly asked me to fix it.  That completely caught me off guard.  I was so confused.  “What is happening to me?  Is she serious?”  She acted like nothing could be more normal.  She had four rather rambunctious sons who each had a lot of friends.  Perhaps this was the only reasonable solution for her.

She showed me how to measure the glass and told me where the nearest glass store was.  She said I could use their glazing and putty knife.  So off I went on my bicycle to the glass store.  The glass cost me a few dollars of my paper route money.  Guess who learned how to replace a pane of glass that day?  Guess who put something in front of that window to guard it the next time we played basketball?  Now that I knew I would be held responsible for what I broke at that house, I paid much closer attention to what I was doing and what was going on around me.  It only took one broken window to train me.

Someone steals our son’s bicycle from the school bike racks.

This one is a little different.  Our son locked his bicycle right where he was supposed to.  Someone cut through the bike lock cable and stole his bicycle.  Our son did nothing wrong and everything right.  In two of the above examples the responsibility was much easier to point out to a child: you made a mistake; fix it or make it right.  The example with the clothing allowance was not as obvious.  The daughter had not necessarily done anything wrong.  Still, it was a situation she needed to figure out.

In this example with the stolen bicycle our son has done nothing wrong.  He did exactly what he was supposed to, but now he no longer has a bicycle.  What do you tell a child in a situation like this?  Has the child been wronged?  Yes.  Did the child do anything wrong?  No.  And yet, we still want our children to step up and take responsibility for what happens in their lives.  What might that look like in this case?

First, we need to empathize with and console our son.  He loved that bicycle.  Then we need to acknowledge and hopefully get to a point of acceptance that people do things they should not do.  That is the world we live in.  Work through these issues with the child as appropriate, but do not allow any kind of victim mentality to take root.  Unfortunate things happen in life.  How we respond to them makes all the difference.

Remember, we want our children to figure it out and direct their own behavior.  We reassure our son that as his parent we are there to guide him through this situation and give him the help he needs.  We are not there to take on responsibility that is his.  After we have consoled our son and talked through this unfortunate situation, it still comes around to the same calm, basic approach.  “What are you going to do about that?”  

“What do you mean what am I going to do?  Somebody stole my bike!”

“I know.  That is really sad and upsetting, but what are you going to do?”

“What do you mean?  I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“I know you didn’t do anything wrong; your bicycle is missing.  What happens now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s think this through.  What do you think needs to happen now?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe tell the school?”

“That sounds right.  What else?”

“Maybe contact the police?”

We should gently guide the child through the entire process.  Depending on the son’s age, you offer different levels of help.  If he is in high school, have him contact the school, the police, your home owner’s insurance company, and have him ask around to see if anyone saw anything, etc.  If he is in third grade you let him do as much of that as he is willing.  He is not too young to call the police with you right there in case he panics.  Keep your son involved in the process until he has his old bicycle back or its replacement. 

Some of us might be thinking this last example is a little too much or a little too harsh.  If we are empathetic, supportive, and loving there should be nothing harsh about it.  Maybe some of us think all the examples are a little much, but we must not forget what is at stake here.  Children who take responsibility for what goes on in their lives think and behave in a completely different manner than children who do not take responsibility for what goes on in their lives.  These children are headed in opposite directions.  I have consoled tearful parents who wished they had understood this when their children were younger.  The longer a child has been irresponsible, the more challenging it becomes to turn that around, but there is always reason to hope.   

In addition to the obvious benefit of holding our children accountable, (they will learn how to figure things out and direct their own behavior) there are some other less expected benefits.  Many of these follow a common pattern in terms of the child’s emotions.  It is one of the many paradoxes of parenting.

In my particular case (15 year old boy breaking a window) I was pretty upset at first.  I didn’t think I should have to fix the window.  I definitely did not want to.  I wanted to keep playing basketball.  Everyone else kept playing while I rode my bike to the glass store.  I thought Kevin’s mom was mean and unfair even though she was so calm and sweet about it.  I was angry at her.  The whole way pedaling to the glass store and back I was angry at her.  I was also a little afraid I would have trouble fixing the window.  That all sounds completely normal to most people.  

But when I finished fixing the window my emotions begin to shift.  I really wanted to stay angry, but that emotion was overcome by a feeling of accomplishment.  I fixed a window!  My fear was gone, and I felt good about myself.  My emotions towards Kevin’s mom changed as well.  I was no longer angry with her.  Actually, I had a whole new respect and appreciation for her.  A window was broken and she never got upset or said an angry word.  She never accused me of being careless or clumsy.  She simply asked me to fix the window and gave me the help I needed.  I felt better about her now than I did before I broke the window.  It’s weird, but I was proud of her.  She handled me and that situation so well.  In hindsight, it felt safe.  I learned she would not yell or put me down or make a big scene.  She would simply hold me responsible and give me the help I needed.  That is exactly what we want to do for our children.

That journey from being upset and angry and possibly afraid to a sense of accomplishment followed by a new respect and appreciation for a parental figure is actually quite normal.  This phenomenon has caught a number of parents I have worked with by surprise.  They thought if they held their children accountable and followed through their children would be really upset and angry with them.  What they experienced was the opposite, once the initial emotions of anger, irritation, and/or fear were overcome.  If we remain calm, treat our children with respect, and are loving and firm, we should be OK.  If our children know we love them, understand we are doing this for their best interest, we should expect good results.  

Having said that, I must warn you about another way this can play out.  Sometimes, when a child realizes his parent is becoming more effective and firm, he does his best to undermine the progress.  He does not want his world to change.  That means it will get worse before it gets better.  This is a critical time for us.  Success or failure can hang in the balance.  We must stay on course and ride out the storm.

One mom I worked with actually got “hate notes” slipped under her door during the time she was becoming a more effective parent.  One of her daughter’s wrote a story for school titled something like “The three lovely daughters and the meanest mommie in the whole world.”  Fortunately, this mom was determined and completely aware of what was going on.  She weathered the storm with grace and humor.  A week or two later this mom shared the latest written effort from her daughter.  She had required her daughter to figure something out and direct her own behavior.  The mom would not budge, the daughter was upset and frustrated, and this is how it turned out.  These are the exact words the daughter wrote to her mom.  (Misspelling has been corrected, and the name was changed.)

“Dear Mom, I figured it out.  I do the playroom and she does the mudroom.  I love you.  Jennifer” 

How beautiful is that?  “I love you.”  Unsolicited and sincere.  This note was written to her mom at the end of a “battle” that was not going well at all.  The mom asked the child to clean up two rooms with her sister.  The daughter kept trying to get out of doing it.  She went through many reasons and excuses why she could not complete the assignment, but she eventually figured it out and got it done with no help from her mom.  That was exactly what the mom was trying for all along.

Some of us might be unsettled by this story, “I could never be that thick-skinned or tough with my children.”  I can certainly empathize with that.  Sometimes parenting is not for the faint-hearted, but we must never lose sight of being the parent our child needs us to be.  That is what this is all about.  What does our child truly need from us?

Jennifer’s mom worked hard doing what she knew she had to do.  In the end, she received compliance and love as well as respect.  Think about that for a moment.  The mom ended up getting compliance, love, and respect.  The daughter became more peaceful and pleasant to work with.  

We want to end up with children with strong, dependable, and good character.  We also want our children to master life skills.  Requiring our children to figure it out and direct their own behavior is a huge part of making that happen.  We want our children to understand and live the following statements.

I am responsible for cleaning up my own messes.

I am responsible for the consequences of my actions.

I am responsible for apologizing and making it right when I am wrong.

I will take responsibility for what goes on in my life whether it is my fault or not.

Most of humanity’s problems would disappear immediately if everyone understood this.  Basically, you can divide humanity into two groups: those who understand responsibility, and those who do not.  Which group do we want our children to be in?  Can our children depend on us to help them get there? 

Before we move on, I want to share two more examples.  The first one came out of a parenting class I was teaching in New York City.  The second one came from an article I found in the LA Times.

A mom could not wait to share with the rest of the class a situation that happened with her young son.  This son was a bit wild, even in the apartment.  One day he managed to hit one of his mother’s prized orchids with his plastic baseball bat.  The orchid did not handle it well.  The flower was split and torn up pretty badly.  This mom loved her orchids.  With great pride she showed us her orchid pictures on her smart phone.  They were beautiful.  

Before taking the parenting class, she admitted she probably would have yelled, scolded, lectured, and definitely punished.  She tried this new approach she had just learned.  She tried to stay as calm as she could, “What are you going to do about that?  How are you going to make that right?”  That alone freaked her son out.  Where was the yelling?  Where was the anger?  Where was the punishment?  She gave him some time to think it over.

She could hardly finish the story without getting emotional.  Her young son came to her with a very serious look on his face.  He had obviously given this some deep thought.  He thought maybe they could tape the flower back together, and he had the tape in his hands.

It was all the mom could do to not burst out laughing or begin to cry.  She had to turn away.  She did not want to embarrass or humiliate her little man.  She could not believe what she was seeing.  Here was her wild and careless son holding up tape in his hands - so serious, so tender, so hopeful.  He knew how much his mom loved her orchids.  This was new territory for him.  Up to this point, he had never really thought about the damage he caused with his careless actions.  He had never thought about fixing something he had broken.  Being yelled at and punished never made that kind of a thinking or caring connection for him.

I found this article from the Los Angeles Times on the internet. There were a number of other similar articles.  Judges who make juvenile offenders undo the damage they have done have had considerable success, especially when compared to more traditional methods of punishment.

LA Times April 21, 1989.

“A 20-year-old gang member, leaning on the back of a graffiti cleanup truck Thursday, acknowledged that putting gang markings on walls is a lot easier than taking them off.  "You 'strike up' a wall without really thinking about it. You just do it because there is nothing better to do," he said of his past work with a can of spray paint. "When you've got to clean it off, then you know it takes a lot of work and it costs a lot of money. It makes you think."

Exactly!  That is exactly what we want to happen - real thinking.  Later on in the article this gang member said he was done with graffiti.  He did not want to have to clean it off ever again.

Think about that for a moment.  You have a can of spray paint in your hand, and you really want to use it.  BUT, there is a real possibility that whatever you spray, you will have to clean off.  Kind of takes the fun out of it.  There is something significantly more effective about undoing the damage we have done versus being punished without having to undo the damage we have done.

Effective parents understand this well.  They stay focused on what is happening in their child’s mind and heart.  Is my child actually figuring things out or not?  These parents tend to have confidence in themselves and their children.  They know these situations are needed opportunities to strengthen character, learn life skills, and develop a sense of responsibility.  Other parents miss that entirely.  Where are we?

I did not understand this concept until my children were older.  I love to teach and solve problems.  I thought my children were the luckiest children in the whole world to have such a father.  Whenever they faced a challenge I could magically appear and teach them or solve the problem.  I thought I was wonderful.  I thought I was their hero.  What I now know is I was robbing my children of countless opportunities to struggle and grow because of my overwhelming desire to teach them and solve their problems and be their hero.  

There are other parents who rob their children of these opportunities because they tend to be micromanagers.  These parents tend to just step in and take over.  Some step in because they do not trust their children.  Some step in because they do not believe in their children’s abilities.  Others step in because they just don’t have the patience to let their children figure it out on their own.  This approach can lead to all kinds of unhelpful feelings on the part of the child: anger, frustration, shame, helplessness, etc.  What it does not lead to is children who take responsibility for themselves, develop strong character, and master life skills. 

There are also other parents who struggle to keep their own frustrations or petty emotions out of it.  They muck everything up by dragging past history into it or making it personal.  “When will you ever learn?”  Why do you always do this to me?”  The focus is no longer on the opportunity.  Instead, a misguided and unhealthy focus on the relationship drowns out any chances of something good coming out of this situation.  

And finally, there are other parents who do not want their children to “suffer” in any way.  They do not want their children to have to struggle, or stress, or work, or think too hard.  They want to make things as easy as possible for their children.  That sounds nice, but it can create a huge problem.  If there is no struggle, healthy stress, work, or thinking, there is also no progress, growth, strength, or maturity!  That is simply how it works on planet earth.  For our children’s sake, we must accept and work with that reality.  

It does not matter why we rob our children of these opportunities, the result is the same.  We have robbed our children of exactly what they need to learn how to figure things out and direct their own behavior.  Remember, a normal nine to ten month old human baby has more brain power than any other creature.  Our children can and will figure this stuff out if we let them.  These opportunities are the perfect setup to help our children become competent and responsible human beings.

I see this all the time.  You probably have too, if you think about it.  At one end of the spectrum are children who accept responsibility.  They tend to do well in life with well developed character and life skills.  They tend to be well-adjusted and satisfied with their lives.  They also tend to be much more concerned about and aware of the people and circumstances around them.  

At the other end of the spectrum are children who do not accept responsibility.  They tend to struggle with poorly developed character, questionable morals, and limited life skills.  They seem to resist being responsible.  They tend to make excuses, blame others, argue, and not do their fair share.  They also tend to be self-absorbed and not all that concerned about what is going on around them unless it affects them directly.  Drug use, unethical and even criminal behavior, unhealthy or broken relationships are all potential outcomes if this irresponsibility is allowed to continue unchecked.

As I stated before, I see this quite often.  As parents we need to grasp the importance of this without panicking.  Our children will not fall apart or hate us if we hold them accountable in a calm and respectful manner.  They will become stronger and better equipped for life.  They might not “like” us for a moment, but that moment will pass.  Later in life, they might even thank us.