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It seems that whenever we prepare a lesson or a talk, we feel we learn the most of anyone. Even General Conference topics seem tailor-made for us. And that’s true for me today. I approached this subject with one end in mind, and stumbled upon a huge body of research that pointed me in a completely different direction. Some of what I found, I already knew. But some of it was eye-opening.
So, whether your children are grown, as mine are, or you’re just embarking upon the challenging tasks of parenthood, consider these seven ideas about how to really get the best results when trying to raise responsible children:
First, model responsibility. Show kids what it looks like to follow through and do right. Deliberately point out moments when you are fulfilling your duty. Say, “I agreed to call Brother Owens back, so that’s my responsibility and I’m going to do that.” It sounds so obvious to us as adults, but kids need to see this defined and executed. It teaches them that this is how you behave in life. “I agreed to teach Primary, and it’s my responsibility to prepare my lesson.” Even very young children will learn the meaning of “responsibility” when you use it in a sentence and they can see what it means.
Second, reward them for taking responsibility without being reminded. “You were supposed to get out your clothes for tomorrow and I see that you followed through with your responsibility—good job!” Or, “Your teacher gave you the responsibility to finish this worksheet and you did it—excellent work!” This helps kids learn to self-motivate and have the kind of discipline that makes them independent and confident.
Third, help them see the negative consequence when they didn’t follow through. Review how it could have gone better, and what ideas they have for handling things differently the next time. See yourself as a coach more than one who cracks the whip and metes out the penalty.
Fourth, fight through fatigue. When we’re exhausted we’re less inclined to use the best parenting methods we know, and we often drop the ball. We see a child race by with a cookie right before dinner, and we lack the sheer energy to deal with it in a firm yet loving way. We snap at them. Or we ignore it, figuring one time can’t hurt. But one time does hurt. Soon the kids learn that mom or dad may say one thing, but have no follow-through.
It seems so unimportant, but this can impact your children’s later relationships because it keeps them from learning to make and keep commitments (assuming you’ve explained what’s expected). Kids don’t develop trust or a sense of ethics if the rules are always sliding. They quickly learn to lie and to justifying wrong behavior. Truly, consistency may be one of the toughest aspects of parenting.
Fifth, don’t fall into the competition trap. Parents who focus on doing whatever it takes to get their kids to have top grades and thus get into the best universities often fall prey to the terrible temptation to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal, and sometimes—as we’ve seen in the news— this can include cheating, bribing, and falsifying records. Yikes. Not only is this dishonest, but it launches unprepared kids into rigorous programs where they may bomb out and feel like failures. They may find themselves in jobs they’re not qualified for. And how would you like to be in the operating room with a surgeon from that school? Or on the airplane of a pilot who bribed his way into the cockpit? We all pay a price for this kind of deception.
One of the worst outcomes is that often, such kids later find they can’t make their marriages work because everything was always handed to them and they were shielded from all discomfort and effort. They never learned how to persevere through adversity, and without mom or dad there to swoop in and rescue them, they flounder.
Sixth, re-think punishment. Instead of contriving an unrelated consequence, see if natural consequences might be enough. Research has shown that kids who are frequently punished are actually less likely to make good moral choices. This is because they are focused on the punishment instead of how their mistakes may have hurt others. It makes kids less empathetic and more self-centered.
One study showed that seventh graders whose parents raised them using punishment, including consequences and timeouts, were less morally developed than their peers. They had learned to apply rigid rules without an understanding of why those rules mattered. Experts found that kids who are punished exhibit more bad behavior, not less. And it’s not that the kids who behave badly get punished more often, but that kids who are punished behave badly more often.
Punishment can also make a child feel she’s simply bad, and is destined always to make bad choices. It can cause a child to sneak, lie, and blame others in order to escape punishment, instead of really thinking of better solutions and having a higher motivation to do right.
Needless to say, children quickly learn that big people get to mistreat little people, which can lead to their own misuse of power. This also breaks down the all-important feeling of connection with us that we want our children to have.
Sometimes we think we’re doing right to punish, but this actually teaches the child that you, the authority figure, are the one making him behave, rather than him taking responsibility for his own choice. We’d much rather have children choose the right because they understand that it’s correct, rather than do it out of fear, right?
Seventh, love them. This doesn’t mean being a pushover or dropping all expectations in hopes of making life easy for your kids. It means giving them limits and rules that are enforced with compassion and caring. When we show love we maintain the connection we want our kids to feel. We patiently educate them about the reasons for good behavior and the great things that can result. We guide them to have success experiences.
As Elder James E. Faust once said, “In this life we have to make many choices… The choices we make, however, determine to a large extent our happiness or our unhappiness, because we have to live with the consequences of our choices.” Agency and accountability are intertwined, and children who learn this in their homes are more likely to succeed everywhere else.
Hilton’s newest work, A Little Christmas Prayer, is destined to become a Christmas classic. This tale, for any reader of any faith, teaches us all the magic of gratitude. All her books and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.