Have you ever had your electricity shut off because you forgot to pay the power bill? As the payment date approached did you get a call from the power company reminding you about the due date and telling you what would happen if you didn’t pay the bill? Imagine the following phone conversation between Suzie from the power company and a customer – Mr. Jones:
Suzie: Mr. Jones, I was looking at the calendar this morning and I saw that it was the 15th of the month.
Mr. Jones: You’re correct. It is the 15th of the month.
Suzie: Well Mr. Jones, your payment is due by the 17th and I still haven’t received any payment yet.
Mr. Jones: Right, I am planning on paying it on the 17th.
Suzie: Are you sure? Because last month you were late and we had to turn off your power and charge you a fee to turn it back on. You don’t want that to happen again do you?
Mr. Jones: I remember, last month I had to wait until I got paid again on the 20th because of unexpected expenses earlier in the month.
Suzie: I am just saying that if you were a little more responsible and thought ahead, you wouldn’t have to pay so many fees in your life.
How does Mr. Jones feel about Suzie at this point? It is likely that he doesn’t respect her and that he calls her insulting names as soon as he hangs up?
Most of us have never had a conversation like this one with our power company (or any other company that would like to keep us as a customer). More often, if we forget to pay the bill and call people up at the power company, they don’t yell at us or make us feel stupid for forgetting to pay the bill on time. They don’t sit us down and explain why it is so important to have the power on in the house. They don’t lecture, threaten, warn, or beg us to pay the bill on time. Rather, for a fee, they happily turn our power back on.
The power company is very effective at teaching their customers responsibility. Instead, of using a lot of words or reminders, the power company teaches people to be responsible through actions. We can learn a lot from the power company when it comes to teaching our kids responsibility.
Rather than using a lot of words to teach responsibility, we can use actions instead
Let’s take a common example of a parent of a teenager. Let’s say that the teenager has a phone and is staying up late at night texting or he is texting during class at school. The parent is okay with him having a phone as long as he uses it responsibly. In order to teach him the importance of responsible phone use the parents sits Joey down to have the following conversation. Let’s see how effective it is:
Parent: Joey, I was looking at the phone records and I saw that you have been texting during class.
Joey: People were sending me texts and it’s rude not to respond to them. I can’t help it if they send me texts during class.
Parent: Well, you can just not respond to them or wait until between classes.
Joey: My friend was having a serious problem so I needed to help her. You wouldn’t turn your back on a friend if they needed your help would you?
Parent: That’s not the point Joey. I looked up your grades on the computer and you have 2 D’s and you’re failing English and have several assignments missing.
Joey: That’s because my English teacher is always late at grading make up work and my history teacher sucks and no one is getting a good grade in his class.
Parent: Joey, you’re not listening. You haven’t been getting to bed on time because your texting until eleven or twelve at night and you’re usually in a bad mood in the morning.
Joey: I’m in a bad mood because of my annoying little brother!
Parent: Joey, you’re not taking any responsibility for your actions with your phone! Fine! Give me your phone. You’re grounded from it until you can learn to be responsible?
Joey: This is stupid. This is what I get for being a good friend. No wonder why you don’t have any friends.
Parent: That’s it! Now you’ve lost your phone and you’re grounded for a week!
How did that turn out? Is it possible that both Joey, and his parent, felt disrespected? Let’s try another example.
Teaching responsibility through action
Joey: Hey mom. There is something wrong with my phone. It stopped working today at about ten this morning. We need to get it fixed.
Parent: About that… I noticed that your phone was starting to become a problem.
Joey: What do you mean a problem!?
Parent: Well, I noticed your grades had started slipping and you have been receiving and responding to texts late at night and during class hours.
Joey: But my friend has been going through problems and I am the only one that she can talk to.
Parent: I’m sorry to hear about your friend. What’s been going on?
Joey: Never mind about my friend! When are you going to turn my phone back on?
Parent: I’ll be happy to give you another chance with your phone when I see your grades improve, when I see you taking better care of yourself by getting enough sleep, and when I see you treat others in the family with more kindness and respect.
Joey: This is stupid!
Parent: I know.
Joey: You’re mean and you’re ruining my life!
Parent: I know it seems like that. But I have confidence in you that you can do what you need to do to get your phone turned back on soon.
How did the second example compare with the first? Even though the outcome was the same, did it appear that there was more respect in the second example than the first? Did things look like they were escalating or deescalating?
Just as the power company teaches individuals to be responsible through action, parents can more effectively teach their children responsibility through action rather than words. One thing to keep in mind though while you teach kids responsibility through action is to do it with empathy and understanding rather than anger and frustration.
Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona. He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Therapy Group.
He workswith couples on establishing safety and security within their relationship and helps couples understand and supporteach other more. He also teaches parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculum, classes for parents ofchildren with ADHD, step-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents. He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.