What to Do when Your Kids Are Irresponsible

Teenage girl rolls her eyes as her mother lectures
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“I have two children,” an exhausted mom told me. “One treats me like I’m on earth to serve her. The other is so lazy I can hardly stand him. I’m sick of the irresponsible behavior, and when I try to confront it, I get nothing but yelling and slamming doors. I really need some help.”

What this mom needed was a solo vacation to Maui . . . and a game plan that trumped her kids’ behavior. But as I helped her understand why her kids did what they did — or didn’t do — and how to form an easy game plan of her own, she realized she didn’t have to put up with their irresponsibility.

Neither do you.

The making of irresponsible kids

Irresponsible kids aren’t created out of thin air. They’re taught to be that way by someone in their house. And if there isn’t a consequence, your kids won’t change their behavior.

When your children don’t act the way you want them to, do you feel that “urge” to show them who’s boss? If so, you tend toward the authoritarian, “I know best” model of parenting. The authoritarian parent makes decisions for their child, prompting inner or outward rebellion and a lack of problem-solving skills in their children.

If you're always tiptoeing around your kids' behavior in an attempt to keep them happy, you’re a permissive, “whatever you want” parent. Permissive parents don’t allow their children to experience the results of their actions.

Both extremes are problematic. Only the authoritative parent allows age-appropriate choices and uses “reality discipline” so kids experience real-life consequences for choices while still in the safe nest of their home.

How reality discipline works

Contrary to how they act, children need boundaries or home won’t feel safe. But your authority must be balanced, loving and yet aimed toward their long-term well-being. How can you best parent kids when they fail to act appropriately?

Hold them accountable.

Your son is late to school for the third time in two weeks. You’ve rescued him by white lies on notes before, but this time you tell the truth: “He’s late because he slept in. Do whatever you do to kids who are late.”

Yes, he’s angry with you and embarrassed because he gets detention, but your refusal to bail him out of the mess he created is a long-term gift, showing him that his actions matter. Let him off the hook now, and his “purposive behavior” of irresponsibility will continue.

Stick to your guns.

Your daughter failed to do her chores, after you reminded her several times. After school, she races in to change clothes so she can go out with her friends. But you confiscate the car keys.

“You neglected to do your chores, even after I reminded you. So you’ve lost your privileges,” you say. She’ll try everything — pleading, crying, yelling, apologizing — but you don’t back down. Yes, it’s a tough evening, but if you give in, she’ll continue to avoid her responsibilities. Stick to your guns, and she’ll learn that responsibilities matter.

Let reality be the teacher.

Your son games online instead of studying for his math test. The result is a red D and a teacher note about a mandatory retake when he’s supposed to be at basketball practice. He’s fuming about how unfair life is. Just stay mum and let reality do the talking.

Realize fighting is an act of cooperation.

As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango. Your daughters are in each other’s faces over a ripped clothing item. They move their fracas into your locale. Since they’re fighting to get your attention, remove yourself from ground zero with a simple, “I’m sure you can work it out.” Say it once, then turn your back and walk away. They’ll have to learn how to compromise and work out their conflicts on their own.

The next time your child participates in irresponsible behavior, think: What do I normally do? What will I do differently this time? If you want to change your child’s behavior, start by adjusting your own.

Dr. Kevin Leman is the New York Times bestselling author of Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours and The Birth Order Book.
Copyright © 2018 by Kevin Leman. Used by permission.

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