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Here’s a Secret – Don’t Ask your Kids to be Responsible

“Tyler, can you put your clothes away, please?” I ask, although I don’t know why I even bother. I know the clothes will just stay there right in the nice pile on the bed where I left them folded, until ultimately they wind up getting knocked to the floor where eventually, after a day or so of walking past and sighing, I will pick them up and put them in his drawers.

For years, I convinced myself they were too young to really understand responsibility. I excused their behavior, and fell victim to the ultimate mom mistake. I would just do it for them. At the time, it definitely seemed easier.

But then I had a few wake-up calls.

It started years ago, back in Kindergarten with Tyler. When the teacher told him he needed to zip his own coat, Tyler responded, “But you do it so much better.”

When I wanted Michael, my 7 year-old, to accompany me into Target to pick out a bean bag seat that he lobbied for, he barely glanced up from his Kindle to remark, “You do it. I’ll just stay here.”

When I asked Julius, my 5 year-old, to do anything at all… such as to help me to pick up the toys that he had scattered from his room all the way to the neighbor’s yard, he lay on the carpet and moaned, “But it’s going to take soooo looooong,” until the job was pretty much done. He’s a smart one.

They all are. So how come they have such a dumb mother? For years, I made their irresponsibility okay by putting on their shoes because they were lazy, putting their dishes in the sink because they were busy, picking up their crap, waitressing them snacks, finding their lost school books, packing their back packs, reminding them to do their homework, buying them new hats, gloves, sweatshirts, lunch bags for all the lost ones… you name it, I nagged about it and then did it.

It wasn’t like I totally just gave up the ship. I tried. I mean I initiated a number of highly praised reinforcements for positive behavior. There was –

The Responsibility Chart – The  Melissa and Doug magnetic board looked perfect hanging in our kitchen. There were all these cute magnets for brushing your teeth and feeding the cat. Some said, Help Mom and Share. Aw. This worked fantastic as a toy to play with the magnets. Or as pieces to lose, chuck or step on. 

Ohhh magnets! Let's throw them up in air! Yay!

Ohhh magnets! Let’s throw them up in air! Yay!

The Ticket system – I got this idea after visiting Chuck E. Cheese. You get tickets for doing good things and then trade the tickets in for prizes. It was all about positive reinforcement. I got a roll of tickets from Party City and it was on. I started dolling them out for every marginally positive thing they did. You used a fork instead of your hands? Ticket! You used a tissue instead of your sleeve? Ticket! I was trying to encourage them, but by my fourth trip to Game Stop I realized they were playing me.

Allowance – This was suggested by my two older boys with the peanut gallery approval of my youngest chanting, “Money! Money! Money!” Here, they would each do their responsibilities, seemingly simple tasks like, waking up for school, getting themselves dressed, and brushing their teeth. Yeah, it’s that easy to earn a buck in my house. And yet, they couldn’t pull it off. Hmm. 

“Be a Star”  – In this chart, each child is a different colored star that moves up or down according to behavior. When you reach the top, you receive a ‘reward’. If you reach the bottom, you receive a ‘punishment’. On your mark, get set, GO! Will Michael act better than Tyler? Will Julius tell on Michael? Competition was the star here. Who would get to the top first? Who would be crying first? Answer: Me. 

If you can you find the cart hidden behind all the crap, you get a star!

If you can you find the cart hidden behind all the crap, you get a star!

Points! – Our latest, conceived by Tyler. An intricate system modeled after one of his video games where points are given for certain tasks and good behavior. Again, if you get enough points, you win something. Here, there is also the possibility of a ‘knock out’.  If you do three bad things, you lose your points for the week. On paper this was great, but it failed in action. There was a lot more fighting over how many points would be attributed to what tasks than actual task doing.

Nothing seemed to work. Except, me that is. I assessed my attempts and realized that all those systems are really just bribery prettied up to seem psychologically and socially acceptable. Cause, saying, “Kid, clean your room and I’ll give you 5 bucks” doesn’t play well anymore. It’s not the 70’s. Sigh.

And that’s when it hit me. A belt slap straight from the past.

Why was I asking my kids to clean up? Why was I asking them to do anything? And what was with all those rewards?

So, here’s the new system in our house. In action.

“Tyler, put your clothes away.”

No bells or whistles. No prizes or points. I no longer ask. I tell. And guess what? It works.

About Ice Scream Mama

Mama to 3 boys, wife to Mr. Baseball and daughter of a sad man. I have a double scoop every day.

20 responses »

  1. It does!
    And then .I discovered that they are happier( the boys,I mean) ,and don’t even think of a prize!
    Otherwise what prizes ought to be given to their parents?

  2. Do you think that can work on my hubby too;)

  3. I enjoy all of your posts but this one cracked me up because I could so relate! Thanks for the laugh 🙂 Date: Thu, 31 Jan 2013 13:10:17 +0000 To:

  4. I loved this. it is so true.

  5. lol went thru ALL the same crap i no longer ask either using the just do it cuz i said so………….still doesn’t work or i still have to nag and end up doing it myself arg

  6. Exactly! I didn’t get rewards for doing what I was supposed to do! You just do it because your parents tell you to. How’s this working out now?

  7. I have to get better at this. I ask and while they mull it over I start doing their chores. Great post. I gotta get some you-know-what (balls).

  8. I’m with you, sister. I’ve taught our kids to walk all over me around chores and then I pull out “mean mommy” and miraculously they are capable of putting away their shit. Amazing! Great post!

  9. I need to take your advice. I’m such a sucker, I do EVERYTHING for my kids. Sometimes they don’t even want to wipe their own nose. Soon they’re going to think I should lay out the RED ROYAL carpet for them!

    • oh no worries – i spent years wiping their noses. and i can’t say it still never happens. we’re moms, we can’t help ourselves, but we can let them try to do more, that’s helping them and us.

  10. Bribery works for me, I just don’t always find the right leverage when I need it. These days, my 9 and 11 year olds want their DS, and they don’t get it unless they have done their homework, practiced music, cleaned their room and done a chore. Chores are bathroom cleaning, dishwasher stacking, trash and recycling removal, laundry, etc. Whatever needs doing. I just can’t do everything anymore, not after rupturing a disc and needing back surgery. I say, let the kids help, not only will you maybe not rupture a disc like I did, but they also need to know how to do this stuff someday. Nobody I know is raising their daughter to expect their husbands to put up their feet and do nothing for the kids or house. My daughter’s 4, and I want her to know how to do it all, but I don’t want her to have to.

    • you’re right – a little bribery doesn’t hurt and i agree, we gals can do it all – we just don’t want to have to!! Absolutely! Sorry about your back. That’s terrible. 😦

      • Thanks! It was two years ago, and I’m much better. It was a wake-up call for the family, though. I had to take a step back and say, “I’m not going to do that. It can wait.” I had to get the kids in the right frame of mind for helping more. We’re in a good place right now, but the pendulum does swing back occasionally.

      • i’m glad it’s in the past. back problems are so debilitating. and yep, the pendulum is always swinging. i just try not to get knocked over. 🙂

      • Sometimes getting knocked down is what you need to get out of the rut. I definitely prefer to be on my feet and still fighting, though. Most of the time my kids are pure pleasure. I walked them to school this morning, and they both chatted happily about the mammal dioramas in my younger one’s class. A bittersweet moment for me — they are growing up.

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