Can I Not Have a Teenager?

Raising a Responsible Child Does Not Need Harsh Methods

Lessons on habit formation

By Mark Lim | 31 January 2020

The 7-year-old hurriedly deposited the bag of goods at the kitchen table. He then dashed off to his room to play with his brother. But not before he heard a shout from the kitchen.

“E! What happened to the eggs! Why are half of them broken!”

As the 7-year-old returned to the kitchen, he was met with a frown on his father’s face. The bag of eggs was open, and it was not a pretty picture.

“Why are the eggs broken?” asked the father in an upset yet calm tone.

“Er…. I don’t know,” came the reply.

“Well, I saw how you had thrown them on the kitchen table. You were too eager to go to your room and play.”

The boy did not reply. His eyes turned to the ground and he attempted to avoid his father’s stern glare.

“Who is responsible for the broken eggs?” asked the father.

“Sorry Daddy. It’s my fault.”

“I accept your apology. But E, do you know who is ultimately responsible for the eggs?”

The little boy looked at his father, expecting him to yell at him for not properly handling the eggs.

“I am ultimately responsible. You are still a young boy, and I chose to let you carry the eggs. So although you are partly to blame for breaking the eggs, but at the end of the day, as your father, I am the one who is ultimately responsible for the eggs.”

The little boy was surprised at the response, his eyes taking in the weight of all that had just been said; and all at once there seemed to appear a gleam of gratitude on his face.

“I understand, Daddy. If you don’t love us you wouldn’t spend so much time training us and teaching us to be responsible….”

Our philosophy is that children should be treated as “persons-in-training,” individuals to be groomed as early an age as possible.

Building Healthy Habits

Since our children were young we have been teaching them the importance of being responsible for their actions. For instance, since the age of 5 or 6, our kids have been carrying their own plates to the table after we place our orders at the food centre. We are aware that they could possibly drop the plates, but we have decided that even if they did that, it’s still okay. And at home, we have used regular crockery and other utensils from an early age, instead of the plastic cups and plates which are usually used by many other kids. Our philosophy is that children should be treated as “persons-in-training,” individuals to be groomed as early an age as possible.

Many of these ideas have come from 19th century educationalist Charlotte Mason, whose writings on classical education have shaped the minds of many. A prominent teacher and writer, Mason believed that a parent’s chief duty was to “form in his child right habits of thinking and behaving.” To that end, habit formation was one of the key principles that she advocated.

I remember one of her analogies about habit formation. She noted that the train goes around a fixed railway track each day. Would it then be possible one day for the train to suddenly decide to go off track? Likely not; the railway tracks have been established from the start, and the train would not travel in a route that was not there before. Likewise, when we lay the rails of a child’s life, we establish set patterns and habits that the child will follow from the beginning of his or her life. Consequently, we need to help our children develop healthy habits as early as possible.

When we lay the rails of a child’s life, we establish set patterns and habits that the child will follow throughout life.

No Need for Harsh Consequences

What then about responsibility? Many parents have chosen an approach known as classical conditioning. If the child does something right, they are rewarded. But if they do something wrong, they are punished. This model of teaching responsibility is borrowed from psychology, and many parents today practise this method.

However, if we were to draw from Mason’s principles to teach responsibility, we would see responsibility as an extension of habit formation. So if we teach our children how to be responsible from an early age, they will start practicing good habits and take ownership of their day-to-day responsibilities.

As such, there is no need for an external stimulus like a reward or a punishment to drive our kids. Instead, our children are motivated by an internal desire to be responsible for their actions.

They can begin by learning to be responsible in small ways such as watering the plants and clearing the dinner table daily. As your kids get older, you can scaffold their responsibilities and entrust them with chores such as washing or hanging of laundry, or vacuuming and mopping the house.

However, as parents, we should bear the ultimate responsibility for what happens under our care. As such, we need to monitor whether the plants are being watered or if the dishes are being cleaned properly, continually guiding and reminding our kids if the leaves turn yellow or if there is leftover soap on the dishes. There is therefore no need for harsh punishment. We instead replace this with regular training.

What if the child refuses or forgets to do his chores? Chore refusal is a behavioural issue and needs to be resolved accordingly, with an appropriate punishment such as a “time in” or a withdrawal of privileges. As for forgetfulness, we all forget things from time to time; we can simply remind the child to do the chore, regardless of how inconvenient it may be for them.

“Daddy,” said the 9-year-old, “It’s already evening and I have yet to water the plants. I’m very tired and I really want to go to bed.”

“Yes, Z. I know it has been a long day for you.”

“But Daddy, I know I must water the plants. It’s my responsibility.”

“Yes, Z. You are absolutely right. Why don’t you ask your younger brother to help with the lights?”

And so the younger child reached out and switched on the balcony lights, while the older child proceeded to water the plants. The younger brother then completed the task by switching off the lights.

“You know Z and E, you have both done very well. Daddy is very proud of both of you!"

And the boys beamed a brilliant smile, even as they headed to bed.

Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 9 and 7.

Think about:

  • What is one way your child can help out in the home this week?


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