The ABCs of Family Responsibilities

My kids (aged 11 and 13) won’t take any responsibility around the house. They are lazy, messy and disrespectful. I have tried using consequences, they don’t work. I am getting so resentful that I don’t even like myself anymore! Is it too late to create some changes?

I’ve been putting off answering this question for months, and I just realized it’s because it’s a hard question! There isn’t an easy answer. A pattern has been established, involving all members of the family, and in order to change the pattern you have to figure out what it is.

Here are the ABCs of behavior : A is for antecedents, B is for behavior, and C is for consequences. Any person’s behavior results from its antecedents (the things that happen just before it) and its consequences (whether or not it pays off). Before you can help your children change their behavior, you need to determine why that behavior is happening.

Begin by asking yourself questions about the antecedents of your children’s behavior – what could have led them to behave this way? Here are some possible antecedents :

1) Is any adult family member lazy or messy or disrespectful in their speech? Are your kids learning from someone’s example?

2) Are your kids so busy that they are tired all the time?

3) Have you assigned chores without allowing your kids input into what chores they want to do? Parents often decide, for example, that one child will wash the dishes every day. This is incredibly boring, and any child will rebel after a while. But that same child might be delighted to cook dinner twice a week!

4) Do you nag so much that they feel that anything they do is “giving in” to you, and they have to avoid doing chores in order to feel in charge of their own lives?

Now ask yourself questions about the consequences of your children’s behavior – are these behaviors rewarding or punishing for them? For example :

1) If they avoid doing things, do they get all their normal privileges, such as going out to play with friends?

2) If they avoid doing things, do those things get done by you, and they get more time to watch TV or play?

3) If they follow through with their responsibilities, do they get praised, or is their contribution taken for granted?

4) If they do chores, do they get given more chores?

If you want your children to change their behavior, you have to change whatever antecedents or consequences are keeping the behavior the way it is. The first thing to do is change your parental behavior. For example, their other parent may have to clean up his or her act if they are setting a bad example, and you may have to stop nagging, which is just tuned out and creates resistance in your kids.

It may be helpful to have a family meeting to decide who has which responsibilities. Make sure it is a genuine meeting, not a lecture by the adults to the kids. Make popcorn or something to make the meeting fun, and keep it short – no more than half an hour, as kids don’t have a very long attention span. Your children are at an age where it is very important that they have input if you want them to take responsibility. Ask them how they feel about the present situation, and what they suggest to improve things. It is likely they are just as unhappy with it as you are, since you say you are resentful and don’t even like yourself! Listen carefully to what each family member suggests, including what changes they want in your behavior. For example, they may want you to stop nagging in exchange for their doing things they have agreed to.

The agreements made in the family meeting should include who will do which chores, when they will be finished, and what will happen if they are or are not done. It is best to set a time by which a chore must be done, and then you are not allowed to nag until that time is up. The best consequences are natural events. For example, someone only gets to eat dinner or go out when they have finished their chore for that day. There can be a really nice consequence for all chores completed during a week, such as renting a movie. All consequences should be agreed upon by the whole family. If reminders are needed, someone can perhaps type up the agreement and distribute a copy to all family members. Continue to have meetings frequently enough that chores can be changed if the kids are getting tired of them.

Now, it might not work. The situation is complicated, and your solution is only as good as your understanding of the situation. If it doesn’t work, go back to figuring out the antecedents and consequences of the behavior, so that you can change these effectively.

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