One of the more subtle ways to promote responsibility in your children is through the language you use. By communicating your expectations that your children will act responsibly, you can create an environment that encourages them to be accountable for their behaviors.
Be alert to “trigger words”
To avoid taking responsibility, children sometimes use phrases such as “It wasn’t my fault,” “He made me do it,” ‘I forgot,” or “It was an accident.” When you do not accept these comments as an explanation for behavior, your children learn to take responsibility for their actions. For example:
- “I forgot to feed the dog.”
Instead of saying “Okay, don’t let it happen again,” say “The dog is hungry. You need to feed him now.”
- “It wasn’t my fault that Thomas’s papers fell. He left them too close to the edge of the table.”
Instead of saying “I’m glad you didn’t do it on purpose. Be more careful next time,” say “I know you didn’t do it on purpose, but you are responsible for what your body does. You need to pick up the papers.”
Give information positively
By noticing improvements and progress rather than commenting on failures, your language can communicate a sense of growth and hopefulness. Rather than saying “When will you remember what you have to do to set the table?” you can say, “I’m glad that you put the dishes and napkins on the table. Soon you will put the silverware there too. That is part of learning to set the table.” You are giving the message that you believe that your child is capable of and willing to learn.
“Catch your children being good” by praising positive behavior. Children want to be noticed and appreciated. If they are not recognized for behavior that is responsible, they may try to gain attention through behavior that is not acceptable.
Use the language of “supportive care”
Instead of rushing in to help your children when they are having a problem, ask them if they want help or if they want to handle the situation themselves. If they want help, you can ask them what kind of help they would like.
Because this type of offering gives them the chance to solve their own problems or to decide in what areas they could use assistance, it encourages children to take more responsibility for their own care.
For example, instead of immediately offering to assist your child on a writing assignment, you can ask whether they want to do it themselves or whether they want help. If they want your involvement, do they want to brainstorm ideas with you, want help organizing their thoughts, or want you to proof-read their paper?
Use Negotiable Rules
There are certain rules that parents will maintain as non-negotiable; these are often related to safety issues. But as children get older, more mature and as their judgment improves, certain rules can be shifted into the negotiable category. By engaging your children in a process of negotiation, you are handing over to them some of the responsibility for following the rule. The result is that your children will more readily internalize the rules and gain self-discipline. For example, as children get older, bedtime on weekend nights is an issue that might be open for discussion. Having had input into the decision and agreed upon the bedtime during the negotiation, your children are more likely to responsibly abide by the decision.
Humor reduces tension, helps children to see a situation from a different perspective, increases cooperation and builds stronger relationships between people. For example, if your child neglects to brush his teeth, you can place a picture on the mirror of decaying teeth asking for help.
If you can picture your children as being responsible and treat them as if they already are, you will enhance their movement in that direction. Having a clear picture of how you want your children to be and believing they are capable of becoming that way, will increase the likelihood that they will rise to meet your vision and expectations.
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