A high percentage of animals raise up responsible offspring. Their young leave the nest and learn to successfully fend for themselves. What percentage of American parents do you think get those two jobs done?

My definition of successful children is growing up to solve their own problems emotionally and financially. They live contentedly on what they make, and they get along with those they live with. This usually requires at least one parent who has done the same, and I doubt that that any more than one fifth of American parents would qualify.

To me, the rest aren’t well motivated or equipped to raise responsible children. Nevertheless, if you have the wisdom and courage to ride out your kids’ protests in order to give them a chance at a successful life later on, here’s how.

In short, children grow up to be responsible when parents do three things: 1. Clarify which activities are privileges. 2. Encourage ways of earning the trust required for these privileges.  3. Withhold access to privileges until the trust has been earned.

To elaborate, children will expect and feel entitled to enjoy doing many things which are not necessary for their growth and well-being. Ways to earn the parent’s trust must be spelled out for the child: "you can go once you have finished doing your homework." Show that you want to give the trust, that you hate to have to restrict the child, but that worse still would be spoiling them into thinking privileges in life will come from whining, demanding and saying, "Everybody else is doing it."

1. Privileges: activities come from earning the trust that they can be enjoyed responsibly.

Remember that being responsible means being content with what you’ve earned, and getting along with everyone involved. Here is a starter list for some privileges many kids mistakenly feel entitled to: having something given to or bought for them, being taken at their word, going to the mall, watching TV or movies, talking on the phone, being on line, being taken somewhere they want to go, choosing what to wear or where to eat, driving the family car, having a paying job outside the home, and spending the money they have earned and saved.

The level of trust required for an activity depends on factors such as these: where, when, with whom, for how long, at what age, in privacy vs. with supervision, and the character content of what is experienced. For example, all of these would be factors to consider for allowing a child to watch a given movie.

2. Responsibilities: let children know that behaviors like these can earn trust.

Certain behaviors are avoided by children when they are being selfish and rebellious. At these times, they are showing their attitude is not appropriate for being trusted to act responsibly. Children earn trust by dong things like this. . . .

Greeting family members hello and goodbye, checking in by phone while out, coming home on time, spontaneously and honestly confessing misbehaviors, and taking responsibility for them (offering to earn back the trust that was broken). Doing things together as a family also earns trust, such as having fun, eating, working, and worshipping together in peace.

Doing chores demonstrates appreciation that if you work first and play later, both activities work out better in the long run. Specify the age-appropriate chores involved in keeping each of the following areas cleaned and picked up: kitchen (food), bedroom (clothes), family room, and the yard. What’s appropriate for a given age? Whatever shows that progress is being made on schedule with learning to do almost everything to take care of oneself by age 18 or 19.

3. Restrictions: children should lose privileges when they abuse them.

Certain activities are givens. The following should not be skipped by a child or withheld by a parent, because they are necessary for health and well-being: three nutritious meals a day, eight hours for sleep, going to school, doing one’s homework, exercise, access to worship and solitude, and time with family and friends known to be healthy and loyal to the immediate family.

Other activities are almost always beneficial, and can be considered nearly givens: time with scouts, sports, at church, and at school-sponsored extracurricular activities. These should not usually be withheld for long periods of time.

In addition to a child’s neglecting the responsibilities listed above, the following trust-busters are among behaviors that should always result in widespread and lengthy loss of privileges: lying, stealing, intentionally destroying property, chronically wasting resources, anything legally defined as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or jeopardizing health by smoking, drugging, underage drinking, driving while intoxicated, or risking pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.

If you’re a parent still confused over why your children aren’t learning to be responsible, chances are you are providing as entitlements many privileges that they should have to earn. You’re probably buying them too much, supervising them too little, and over-exposing them to pornography and violence in music, movies, games, computers and TV. But of all the parental foolishness I see, by far the most ridiculous (and the most commonly seen in public) is indulging a child’s tantrums—it’s yielding to emotional extortion, and giving instant gratification for their children’s most selfish, impatient and rude behavior.

In closing, parents, remember: GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT. They reap what you sow, and so do you. Surely you can raise your parenting skills a notch, and raise your children to be as responsible when they leave the nest as wild animals are.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt