Raise Responsible Children
Copyright (c) 2011 Marvin Marshall, Ed.D.
If you find that disciplining your children and fostering a sense
of responsibility in them is stressful or unsuccessful, the use
of traditional parenting approaches may be the problem. Why?
Because traditional parenting approaches, including using
lectures, rewards, and punishments, rely on external motivators
to change the child’s behavior and aim to obtain obedience and
compliance. But telling young people what to do, rewarding them
if they do as expected, and threatening or punishing them if they
don’t are counterproductive, increase stress, and diminish
strong parent/child relationships.
In fact, whether the approach is telling-based, rewards-based, or
punishment-based, the bottom line is that it’s manipulation,
which is never permanent. All these approaches are something you
do to another person and have little long-lasting effect. This is
in contrast to collaboration (working with a person).
The irony of manipulating behavior is that the more you use it in
an attempt to control children, the less real influence you exert
over them. Clearly, manipulation breeds resentment. In addition,
if children behave because they are forced to behave, the parent
has not really succeeded. True responsibility means behaving
appropriately because children want to, not because they have to.
The challenge for parents is raising a child who will do the
right thing even when there is no threat of punishment, no lure
of a reward, and no lecture before and after the act. So how do
you do that? Following are some parenting techniques you can try
today that don’t use punishments, rewards, or lectures and that
internally motivate children to act responsibly.
* Challenge the Child Every time you try to make children do
something or not do something, the children will likely resist.
Children interpret the request as an attempt to control them, and
no one likes feeling controlled. However, virtually all children
enjoy a good challenge. They like to show off their talents and
prove how good they are at things. So instead of trying to force
a behavior, challenge your children to show responsible behavior.
For example, suppose you have a four-year-old son, and every time
you try to get the family in the car, your son jumps into the
driver’s seat and refuses to move back to his car seat. Rather
than bribe him into the backseat, threaten to take away his
favorite toy, or talk for 30 minutes about why he needs to be
safe in his car seat, offer a challenge. You could say, “I bet
I’m faster. I bet it will take you longer to get into the
backseat and buckle your seatbelt than it will for me lock the
front door and come back to the car.” Then watch how fast the
little one jumps to his car seat.
Young children often know what to do. Having them demonstrate
responsible behavior merely takes some creativity, namely, “What
can I say or do to prompt them in a way that they interpret it as
a challenge rather than an attempt to control them?”
* Put the Child in Charge Everyone likes being in charge of
something, even something small. Adults and children alike need a
sense that something in their world is within their control.
Therefore, if you want your children to exhibit responsible
behavior, put them in charge of the exact behavior you want them
For example, suppose you have a school-aged daughter who is
always getting up from the table during dinner, thereby
disrupting the environment you want to maintain during mealtime.
In this case, think of the exact opposite behavior of what your
daughter is doing and put her in charge of that responsibility.
You could say, “Hanna, I need your help. I want you to be in
charge of having all members of the family remain seated during
dinner. Can you handle this?”
When put in control of something, children will always perform
the appropriate behavior because incongruity (doing the opposite
of what the person is in charge of) is very difficult for young
people. This approach to changing behavior immediately is
foolproof. If it doesn’t work, reflect: Did you think of the
exact opposite? Did you use the exact wording of putting the
person in charge and phrasing the responsibility in positive
* Use Creative Phrasing Rather than scold children or talk down
to them, use creative phrasing with a youngster who has done
something that shouldn’t have been done, has misbehaved, or has
had to suffer the results of a bad choice. For example, you could
say, “I know you didn’t mean for that to happen. What went
This phrasing sends the message that you think highly of the
child regardless of the negative situation and that you know the
child didn’t want to end up with the bad results. It
demonstrates empathy and opens the gate for the young person to
think back over the whole issue without getting defensive.
Make the Responsible Choice As a parent or caregiver, your goal
is to assist children to become responsible, self-reliant,
independent problem solvers; yet, external approaches set up
young people to be dependent upon an external agent. Therefore,
the ultimate goal should not be to have the child obey and keep
parents happy. The ultimate goal is that young people act in a
responsible way because it pays off for them; it is in their own
and others’ best interests. Using the strategies outlined here
will help give your children both roots and wings. You will find
yourself on the parenting journey of raising responsible kids,
with less stress and more enjoyment for everyone involved.
Dr. Marvin Marshall is an American educator, writer, and
lecturer. He is known for his program on discipline and learning,
his landmark book Discipline Without Stress? Punishments or
Rewards – How Teachers and Parents Promote Responsibility and
Learning (http://www.DisciplineWithoutStress.com/), and his
presentations about his multiple-award winning book Parenting
Without Stress? – How to Raise Responsible Kids While Keeping a
Life of Your Own (http://www.ParentingWithoutStress.com/).