Reward Responsibility – Not The Opposite!

You’ve probably gotten these phone calls:  “Mom!  I forgot my uniform and there’s a game today!  Can you bring it?” or “Dad!  My paper’s still on the printer!  Would you bring it to school?” or “I forgot my lunch!  Will you drop it off?”

Every time I teach a workshop on parenting teens, the question is invariably asked:  “How can I teach him to be more responsible?”  The answer is simple to say but very difficult to do:  “Stop bailing him out.”

We raised our kids on a simple bit of advice given us by someone who was very wise:  “The behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.”  This works both negatively and positively.  If, for example, you pick up the forgotten uniform and deliver it to school, you have rewarded her forgetfulness.  Next time she forgets it on a game day, why shouldn’t she expect you to deliver it again?  As difficult as it is for parents to watch their kids suffer, sometimes a little suffering of a natural consequence (like a missed game) can go a long way toward teaching responsibility.

Responding to every cry for help is sometimes called “rescue” or “helicopter” parenting.  Certainly we need to be there for our kids, but at the same time we have to do our job of preparing them to get along without us.  This won’t happen as long as we are going along behind, picking up after them and keeping them from experiencing disappointment or frustration as a result of their irresponsibility.

So the next time you get the call – “I left my assignment in the car!  Can you bring it to school?” – respond, very sadly, with “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”  (Or, if you’re not in the mood to be sympathetic, just say, “Bummer.”)  If you’ve always been a Rescue Parent, you’ll be met with gasps of disbelief, and probably even some anger – “You don’t care if I get an F?!”  Assure her that of course you care, and you feel bad about the F, but you just can’t help her out.  Once again, resist the urge to lecture or to gloat (as in “Maybe next time you’ll listen to me when I tell you to put it in your backpack”); instead, let the consequences speak for themselves.

On the flip side, be sure to comment now and then on the acts of responsibility that you observe.  But play it cool!  Don’t say, “Wow!  Good for you!  You remembered to take all your homework to school!  I’m SO proud!”  Instead, keep it understated:  “Hey, I noticed you took all your books and assignments this morning.  Bet that felt good.”

Remember:  it’s the responsibility you want to reward – not the IRresponsibility!


  1. We quickly learned to ask Dad and not Mom, like when getting Kool-Aid before bedtime. Mom always said no, but Dad always said yes. Thinking back on it now I can recall the approximate time when Mom must have talked to Dad about both of them being on the same side because Dad started to say no and Mom started to say “Get it yourself!” Now that we’re all older and more responsible (most of them time) y’all are TOO nice to us! I kid you not, conversation in my kitchen a couple weeks ago:

    Matt – Aw bummer we’re almost out of food again.
    Rob – Should I make a grocery run?
    Matt – No don’t worry about it. The parents are coming, they’ll fill it.

    Yay parents! The funniest part is when we’re all at home for the summer and I complain that I miss the caf at school because there’s no one at home to cook for me whenever I’m hungry. I just walk into the kitchen and say, “Well this stinks…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s