Raising Responsible Kids: Take Off the Bumpers

You know how when you take kids bowling, they have those bumpers on the sides of the lane that prevent the bowling balls from going into the gutter?  Have you ever noticed that it’s HARDER to bowl with the bumpers?  Anyone who actually knows how to bowl knows that the bumper actually interferes with the path of the ball.

(When my husband, an ex-bowling league member, tried to bowl in the kids’ lane with the bumpers, the pumper actually redirected the path of the ball, when it would have curved and hit the pins straight on.)

Kids don’t actually learn to bowl that way because they aren’t allowed to make a mistake.  Why are we so afraid of letting them experience frustration or failure?  What’s the worst thing that can happen?  The ball will fall into the gutter.  What’s so bad about that, really?

Likewise with parenting, we live in an age where kids aren’t allowed to fail.  They don’t have to work out their own problems because parents are all too willing to jump in and work them out for them.  As a result, kids aren’t learning to be responsible and independent.  Do you know how many 30-year-olds still lived at home in 1950?  I don’t either, but I guarantee you it wasn’t nearly as many as do in 2010.

Kids need to learn to live without bumpers.  The only way they are going to learn to be responsible is to be given responsibilities and experience the consequences of irresponsibility. The only way they are going to learn to make wise choices is to be allowed to make decisions and allowed to fail.

Here is my big epiphany:

The goal of parenting isn’t to have perfectly behaved kids; the goal is to raise responsible children who can think for themselves and are prepared to be independent when they leave the house and go it on their own, hopefully well before they are 30.

I am learning to shift my goals.  I’ve always felt like it was my goal to make sure my kids get to the bus every morning to, get their homework turned in on time, to get their toys picked up, and on it goes.  But I have a whole different mentality now.  Rather than making it my goal to get them to accomplish their assigned tasks, I am making it my goal to allow them to fail, experience reasonable consequences for poor choices, and learn from them so that they begin to take responsibility for their actions.

The beautiful part of this is, you can achieve this without yelling, nagging, or getting frustrated.  Putting the responsibility for their behavior on their shoulders, and taking it off of mine, has been a truly eye opening experience — for me as well as for them.

The Secret?  Consequences. The best consequences are those that occur naturally, but sometimes we have to impose consequences.  Here’s an example.

One of my biggest sources of parental frustration is getting my kids to the bus on time without losing my marbles.  There have been too many mornings where I have lost my temper with a child who can’t seem to get ready on time.  And there is no worse feeling than sending a child out the door after one such morning.  I feel like a complete and utter failure, and I’m sure the child does too.  What’s worse, over time it’s bound to put a wedge in our relationship, and that breaks my heart.

The problem, you see, is that I made the responsibility for getting the child out the door MY problem.  When, in fact, it should be the child’s problem. (Obviously there are limits to how far a parent will let this go, but the point is for the child to have an opportunity to experience consequences for their poor choices while the stakes are low so that when the stakes are higher, they will know how to make good decisions.)

Before, I would nag and pester, and remind and cajole the child out the door.  My ultimate goal was getting the child to the bus.  Then I realized there was a better way.  Taking a page right out of Parenting With Love And Logic, I changed my tactic entirely.  I sat the children down one afternoon and explained that I didn’t like myself very much when I lost my temper, and I asked them if they liked it.  No, they did not.  So I told them that mornings were going to be different from now on.

I told them I would wake them up at 7:00 and that I would give them one reminder to get up.  After that I was going to go downstairs and make breakfast and pack lunches.  Breakfast will be ready at 7:30 each morning, and once they are dressed, they are welcome to join us.  (See Raising Responsible Kids: Have a Plan; the caveat is that I have to be responsible enough to get them up at 7:00 and have breakfast on the table at 7:30.)  There will be no reminders and no nagging.  If they miss breakfast, they will have to wait to eat till their morning snack at school.  (I presented all of this in a calm, friendly voice with a smile on my face the entire time.  More on communication in the next post.)

The bus comes at 8:00.  I explained that if they miss the bus, then I have to take time out of my busy schedule to take them to school. (Love and Logic actually suggested leaving the child in their room all day, but I think that’s too harsh, at least it is for my kids.)  I explained that since it would take time away from my work to drive them to school, they will have to pay me back for my time.

Then I paused to lean in, and in a grave voice I said, “And I’m a VERY expensive chauffeur.”

Eyes wide, one child said, “What does THAT mean?”

I sat back, and in a lighter tone I explained that they may have to do one of my household chores or owe me part of their allowance.  They would have to wait and see.  (An element of unpredictability isn’t necessary a bad thing when it comes to implementing consequences.)  I answered a few of their questions, and once I was satisfied that they understood the new plan, I sent them on their way.

The first couple mornings went okay.  Both kids bounded downstairs for breakfast on the dot of 7:30 and managed to get to the bus on time.

But then Wednesday happened.

One child couldn’t seem to get it together.  I had to bite my tongue to keep from nagging.  Because they aren’t all telling time, I did give a few matter of fact updates.  “15 minutes till the bus,” I’d say.  But that was it.  I didn’t nag, I didn’t ask if they would be ready or if they were doing what they should be doing.  When the child was playing instead of putting on shoes, I just said cheerfully, “5 more minutes,” and went about cleaning up breakfast dishes.

Then the scrambling started.  I continued to act unconcerned.  As I put dishes in the dishwasher I said conversationally, “I sure am looking forward to getting to my office as soon as you guys get on the bus.  I have a lot of work to do today.”

But despite my little charade, I found myself starting to get agitated and frustrated, like our new plan was failing because it seemed the threat of the consequence wasn’t motivating the child to make the bus.

That’s when I realized, I had it all wrong. I wanted the child to miss the bus. I mean, I didn’t of course, but the point of the plan was for the child to actually experience the consequence, not be motivated by an idle threat.  This new parenting technique is a total shift in thinking.  But once I made that realization, I relaxed.  The old me would have started scurrying around, trying to help, yelling when the child wouldn’t move faster.  But the new, improved me kept doing dishes and said in a friendly, unconcerned voice, “The bus just drove down the street.  What are you going to do?”  (Again, putting the responsibility on them and off me.)

Upset, my child started crying and saying that it wasn’t fair.

“No problem,” I said nonchalantly.  “I will take you.  Just wait until I finish the kitchen.  You can pay me back on Saturday when you get your allowance.”

Crying turned to howling.

“It’s okay,” I said, maintaining the same friendly tone.  “You’ll have another chance to make the bus tomorrow.”

With that, the child ran upstairs and sprawled on the bed in a display that would have put Scarlett O’Hara to shame.

But would you believe it, in 10 minutes the same child came downstairs, fully ready for school, dry-eyed and calm and said in a composed voice, “Mom, instead of paying you to take me to school, can I do dishes after dinner tonight?”

I smiled kindly and said, “Possibly.  I’ll let you know after school.”  (I’m learning that buying myself some time to think through my options is better than pressuring myself to always answer right away.  Plus, giving them time to stew isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

That evening as we were finishing up dinner, I said conversationally to my husband, “Since I had to take so-and-so to school this morning, they are going to do dishes for me while I make up the time I missed from work.”  I could tell he was about to start in with questions and lectures, but gave a quick shake of my head and continued, “I’m going to do some work, can you keep an eye on things in here?”

He got the hint, and I went to my office while the child in question compliantly did the dishes.  There were no lectures, no reprimands, no re-hashing of the events of the day, just a friendly reminder to do one of my chores to make up for the time I missed from work.

And that is one example of how I’ve been taking off the bumpers and allowing my kids to roll their bowling balls right into the gutter.  Everyone has been on time to the bus since.  (Or bowling strikes, haha.)  I’m sure it’s not the last time someone will miss the bus, but when and if it does, I’m prepared.

Now before you write in and tell me what a cruel mother I am, let me ask you.  Isn’t that better than spending half the morning huffing and puffing and nagging and deriding and finally yelling?  I mean, sure the kids always made the bus, but there were mornings when they must have walked down the street feeling an inch tall.  It pains me to think of it.

This way, the responsibility is theirs, not mine.  I don’t get angry and frustrated, and they learn a valuable lesson.  By letting them fail in non-threatening situations, they learn that their actions have consequences before the stakes get too high.

Here are the keys to frustration-free discipline:

1) Have a plan.

2) Follow through consistently.

3) No yelling, no lectures, no nagging, no threats.

4) Don’t rescue.

5) Remain unemotional.

6) Show empathy rather than anger.

Another thing to remember is that consequences don’t have to be immediate. I always thought that it’s better to handle problems sooner rather than later, but I’m learning that sometimes it’s best to wait.  Sometimes you need to buy time because you can’t think of a good consequence on the spot (planning is great, but you can’t foresee every situation) or because it’s not convenient to take action at the time of the offense (we all know what it’s like to have a child wig out in the middle of Target.)  Giving myself the freedom to delay the consequences until a more convenient time has been a huge relief as I strive to find ways to effectively guide and discipline my children.  Unless they are younger than three, they don’t forget what they did wrong, and letting them stew in their own juices for a while can actually work to your advantage.

See all posts in this Raising Responsible Kids series.

Disclaimer: I am by NO MEANS a parenting expert of any sort.  I am just sharing some things I’m learning as I navigate the muddy waters of motherhood.  I figure, if they work for me, they may work for someone else.  Good luck!

Disclosure: All links to books are Amazon affiliate links.