You Can’t Spell “Success” Without “Responsibility”

If I were to survey parents and ask whether they’d rather have their teens grow up to be successful or responsible, most would answer “Both.”  Yet many parents don’t realize what problems they cause by sacrificing one for the other.

Take, for example, the mom who spots the school project left behind on the dining room table after her teen has left for school.  She knows that the project will count for a large part of the grade, and she doesn’t want her son to get anything less than an A, so she scoops it up and drops it off at school.

Other examples include students staying home from school on the day a project or paper is due in order to finish it, because they didn’t get it done the night before; parents persuading teachers to give students grades higher than what they’ve earned; and parents making excuses for teens’ misbehavior (or telling their teens they didn’t deserve the consequences they received).

These are well-meaning parents who want their kids to get into good schools so they can pursue their career goals.  Yet they don’t realize that in the long run they are doing more harm to their kids than good by smoothing out their paths.

When parents offer easy solutions for their teens’ lapses in responsibility, the teens learn a dangerous lesson: “If I drop the ball, there will be somebody there to bail me out.”  Students who get rescued by parents don’t learn accountability, self-reliance, or responsibility – three characteristics which are important for success as adults.

Allowing teens to experience the natural consequences of their mistakes doesn’t even qualify as “tough love” – it’s just good parenting.  If we want our teens to be successful adults, we have to first teach them to be responsible teens.  And that can’t be done by bailing them out.

Mean What You Say!

While waiting at the gate for a flight, I overhead a parent say to her daughter, “If you aren’t nicer to your sister, we’re just going to go back home right now.”  I had to stifle a laugh, because the daughter (who was around 11) and I both knew there was no way THAT was going to happen.

First of all, I encourage you to avoid threatening whenever you can.  It’s a form of coercion, and there may come a day when you find you can’t enforce it.  Suppose, for example, you carry out your threat to pile on extra chores, and your teen refuses to do them.  Now what?  You can’t carry him to the time out chair!  You might find yourself adding more threats to the original one and creating a new batch of issues.

But if you must threaten, stick to what’s realistic and easily enforced.  For example, “You be nice to your sister, or you’ll be sorry!” isn’t a realistic threat.  However, “Stop picking on your sister, or I’ll take away your phone!” might be easier to carry out.

Better yet, try phrasing it in a positive way:  “When you stop teasing your sister, I can take you both shopping.”  Offer a reward instead of a punishment.  This also avoids giving a direct order, so there’s no opportunity to be defiant.

Even better, get your point across by using humor:  “Tell you what – you stop picking on your sister, and I won’t show up in your classroom in my swimsuit.”  If nothing else, this approach will distract her from the situation, and she and her sister might join together to beg you not to think of such a thing!

Like bomb-sniffing dogs, kids are quick to sniff out empty threats.  Be sure that you can back up what you say!

Can They Handle It?

I am currently in California for my oldest son’s college graduation.  This means I’ve left my class in the hands of a substitute for three days.  I can’t help but wonder – how will they behave in my absence?

When I’m there, things are pretty much under control; my students know what I expect of them, and they usually rise to my expectations.  But that’s not all I want from them.  My goal is that they would practice the same amount of self-control whether they’re in my presence or not.

Parents should have the same goal: to raise kids who are SELF-regulating and SELF-controlling.  At some point they have to break away from their parents, and their parents have to let them go.

But how do you get teens to take charge of their own behavior?  One important step is to praise it when you see it.  On Wednesday I stepped into the 7th grade class across the hall because I knew the teacher was delayed.  I found all but one student seated and chatting quietly.  A quick glance showed me there was no teacher in the room.

“Excuse me?” I asked.  “Are you all sitting in your seats and behaving appropriately and there’s no teacher watching you??”

“Yep,” came the answer, “we’re just mature like that.”

“Wow,” I replied.  “I can’t wait to have you as 8th graders next year!”

And they all sat up a little straighter and smiled at me.

I also vocalize my disappointment when I walk into the room and find someone misbehaving.  “Integrity is doing the right thing regardless of who’s watching,” I’ll say.  And, “I expect you to be able to control yourself when I’m out of the room.”  I never assume teens know what I want; I make sure I’ve clearly stated my expectations.

One more important point:  I let teens suffer the consequences of bad choices.  If playful shoving leads to angry hitting, a suspension may be in order.  There’s no excusing losing one’s temper.  If someone gets a little too wild and someone else complains, I remove the offender and tell him that everyone should feel safe in my classroom.  I invite him to return to class when he feels he has regained his self-control (students are seldom gone for more than a few minutes).

I reminded my students before I left that I WILL return on Tuesday, and if need be, I will deal with them then.

But I’m really hoping there won’t be any need for me to do so.


In my classroom, you’ll sometimes hear, “Mrs. Acuna!  He used the S word!”  It’s not what you think; for us, the “S word” can mean either “shut up” or “stupid.”  My usual response is simply, “Language!”

But what about that other S word – and its four-(or more) letter cousins?  For many teens, swearing is a rite of passage, right up there with getting a driver’s license (only it happens much sooner).  Teens who have heard adults use foul language see it as a grown-up thing to do.  Once they hit puberty, they can’t wait to try it out.

The first thing you should do as a parent is check yourself.  This is one area where you can’t fall back on “Do as I say; not as I do.”  Whether you regularly use obscenities or merely let fly with an expletive in anger or pain, if you swear, you can expect your kids to do the same.  But it’s not just your words that matter; obviously, we’re hearing bad language in all forms of entertainment.

The next thing is to let your teen know it’s not allowed in your house – or at least in your hearing.  When it happens, one thing you can do is simply ask, “What did you say?”  If your teen repeats the sentence but omits the swear word, you can simply respond with, “Oh, good.  I thought I heard a no-no word in there, but I’m glad I was wrong.”  If your teen repeats the sentence with the swear word, you can say, “Sorry.  Please try again, only this time with appropriate language.”

But if your teen swears at you in the heat of battle, it’s not the best time to make an issue of it.  Wait til later when you – and your teen – have cooled off, and then you can mention your rules about cursing and have a discussion about respect.  In the heat of the moment, you can either pretend you didn’t hear it, or you can say, “I’m sorry you’re so angry.  We’ll discuss your language later; in the meantime, please stay in your room until you’re calm enough for a reasonable discussion.

By the way, I usually hear another S word when I’ve reprimanded a student with “Language!” – that word is “Sorry!”