James J. De Santis, Ph.D.
Post Office Box 894, Glendora, CA 91740-0894
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As a parent, we want our children to grow up healthy, happy, and
successful in life. We want to provide them with life's advantages. We want
a child to grow into a mature, responsible adult. Development of maturity
begins at birth.
If along the way our child begins to display irresponsible or immature
behavior for his age, our first task is to assess our own parenting. Parents
have an important impact on child development. Few parents would
intentionally undermine their child's growth and development, of course, but
there is no certification for parenthood. We can make well-intentioned
mistakes. Society somehow expects us to know how to do this thing called
There are a number of ways in which our desire to do the best for our child
can be misguided. We may try too hard to be an admirable parent or to be
liked by our child. We may become impatient with wanting everything to go
right. We may want our child to embrace all our values and priorities. We
may try to shield her from life's disappointments. We may find ourselves
trying to compel or cajole responsible behavior out of her.
When you find yourself doing any of these things, you may be adding to the
problem. Children have a natural ability to manage life and to learn how to
cope with problems. We must avoid inadvertently encouraging them to be
dependent or immature.
Here are checklists to assess whether your own child is acting responsibly
and whether you are being effective as a parent, as well as a list of
Signs of an Irresponsible Child
Temperamental, touchy, throws tantrums
Disruptive, annoying, and attention-seeking
Must have his own way, demanding
Argumentative, oppositional, rebellious
Does not obey reasonable adult requests
Self-centered, sense of entitlement
Blames others for everything
Steals or lies
Happy only when things are "perfect"
Lazy, gives up too easily, passive
Can't solve his own problems
Makes poor decisions
Signs of Ineffective Parenting
Inordinate efforts at caretaking
Feeling responsible for your child's feelings
Feeling embarrassed by your child's behavior
Pleasing your child to maintain harmony,
even when you know you should say "no"
Trying to control your child's behavior
Making excuses for your child
Feeling chronically unappreciated
The only way to get things done is
to do it yourself
Fearing to let your child out of your sight
Global negativity about your child
Administering excessive punishment
What You Can Do
Here are some parenting tips for developing greater responsibility in a child:
Avoid doing for a child what he can do for himself. Don't underestimate your
child's abilities--what you expect is often what you will get. Avoid doing
things for your child out of habit long after it is necessary. Watch your
child's behavior and look for emerging competencies. You may be unaware
he has become capable of something new.
Resist overprotecting your child. You can't arrange all the outcomes. Of
course, provide care and safety--don't neglect or abandon--but avoid
trying to rescue your child from life itself.
Avoid insulating your child from the consequence of her own behavior.
Instead of imposing arbitrary rewards and punishments, draw upon the
natural and logical consequences that result from choices your child makes.
For example, the consequence of not putting on a sweater when asked is
feeling cold. The consequence of refusing a meal when it is offered is
Look for opportunities to actually step back and give your child a chance to
respond to the situation. Part of life's joy is in mastering new challenges.
Only step in if a problem becomes too much.
Catch your child being good--conscientious, mature, and competent.
Acknowledge your child's pride and satisfaction in his own behavior.
Be unimpressed by behavior that seeks negative attention. Even negative
attention can be rewarding. Avoid encouraging negative behavior whenever
Create opportunities for your child to experience his own strength and
self-sufficiency. Children naturally want to do things for themselves. They
enjoy their abilities. Personal accomplishment is its own reward.
Children are eager to make useful contributions to the family and their peer
group. Take advantage of the opportunity, and enlist their participation in
taking on responsibilities appropriate for their age.
Avoid worrying about what other people might think of you. Don't be overly
concerned about presenting an appearance of being a loving, concerned
Have the courage to say "no" and not satisfy every whim. Saying "no" is not
unloving. Set limits that are consistent, firm, and warm. Offer positive
Rather than exerting control through nagging, shouting, or threats,
influence your child through listening, teaching, guiding, modeling, and
Define and state your expectations beforehand. Make instructions easy to
understand for your child's age. Ask him to repeat your request.
Guide your child how to face life, to analyze disturbing situations, to
manage frustrations and disappointments, and to respond to problems
flexibly. Children never are too young to cope with frustrations or to solve
Avoid injudicious self-sacrifice. Value your own needs and not just your
child's. Balance your life with other sources of satisfaction outside of your
Accept your child's personality and preferences as they are, without trying
to change them. Be patient. Give your child choices, and when you do,
accept your child's decision. Let go whenever possible.
Maintain a positive attitude about your child. Show faith in her strength,
ability, courage, adequacy, and self-sufficiency. Let her know you believe
she can deal with life.
When To Seek Help
When your efforts to develop responsibility in your child or to reverse
problem behavior are thwarted, when your child begins to exhibit a pattern
of behavior that is irresponsible for his age that is resistant to change, it
may be time to seek consultation from a child guidance center or mental
Raising a Responsible Child