Yes, we were one of those families that bought a puppy during the pandemic. The agreement with our kids was that we would get a puppy if they would take on the responsibility of the walking and feeding. They were excited about these jobs in the beginning, but now the novelty has worn off and now I have to do all the dog care. How do I make my kids accountable?
Dear Frustrated Mom,
I am so glad you are pursuing a solution to this situation. It’s so easy as for parents to fall into the habit of simply picking up the slack and taking over the responsibilities that children are refusing to manage on their own.
Of course, it’s understandable why parents take over their kids’ jobs: we get tired of nagging and reminding them; we want to make life less stressful so we pick our battles; we can often do it faster and better ourselves; and we feel badly for our kids and want to help them.
Give the kids back the responsibility
The first step in helping our children become responsible is to actually return the responsibility to the child. That means firing yourself from doing their job. You can do this politely and respectfully, but simply saying, “You know, I realize I have been stepping in and taking over your jobs. That really sends a disrespectful message that I think you can’t manage – but that is not true. I think you are very capable. From now on, I am going to let you manage your jobs and stay out of it.”
The next step is to come up with a plan for what you will do when your child tests this boundary. Expect to be tested — it’s part of the process. After all, kids learn from what you do, not from what you say. They have a lot of experience with you stepping up and taking over their responsibilities so they likely believe you will do so again if they just wait it out.
To replace nagging, reminding and rescuing behaviours, we substitute natural consequences, logical consequences, “when/then” and problem solving. I’ll explain how each of those looks for the puppy jobs, but insert your own family’s examples for responsibilities. The same parenting tools apply.
Natural consequences replaces nagging
A natural consequence occurs when you step back and do nothing, and just let the reality of life unfold. If you don’t take a dog out for a walk, it will have accidents inside. Having a child clean up a mess could teach that it’s a lot less work to actually walk the dog than to clean a carpet. (This is just one idea. You may not like it, so keep reading the other ideas and then pick the one you want to try. I like to give a bunch of ideas so parents can find a fit for their family. The more tools in your toolkit the more confident you’ll feel).
A logical consequence is a bit harder because you have to think them up, and that can be hard because a consequence must be related and logical, and you have to tell your child in advance so they know what will happen if they don’t fulfill their responsibility (in this case, dog care). When I can’t think up a good consequence, I often bring the child into the process: “You agreed that if we got this puppy, you would walk and feed it. What should happen if you don’t do your job?” If this was an adult not caring for a pet, animal protection services would remove the animal from the home. The trouble is, most parents have fallen in love with their pet too — so they don’t want to give it up either.
A “when/then” statement may feel like a better option for many. With this parenting technique, you are not controlling the actions of the child, but you are controlling the order of the household. There is a schedule to the day. First we do this, and then we do that. So you could make an agreement about when the dog walking and dog feeding should happen. If the dog is to be walked at 7 a.m. before breakfast, you can say “WHEN the dog is walked THEN I’ll know you are ready for breakfast.”
You don’t have an irresponsible child, just a family problem
Lastly, (and this is always my preferred method) we re-shift our perspective from thinking we have an irresponsible child who needs disciplining, to a new mindset that simple acknowledges we have a problem in the family that is not working, and it needs solving. Sit down as a family and say “Hey, the puppy is not being walked or fed. Why is that? And how can we do this better?” Then, listen. Get to what is at the heart of the hold up. You may discover the kids don’t like walking the dog because it’s boring and there is no one to talk to. Solutions? Listen to an audio book, call grandma and chat, walk the dog with a parent and make it some special one-on-one time. Outsource the job to a neighbour who jogs in the morning and would love a dog companion. Would people be willing to take money out of the family vacation fund and pay a professional dog walker if no one is willing? Swap the dog walking job with a parent in exchange for another chore like getting breakfast together or unloading the dishwasher. The important thing is to think outside the box and be creative. I think you’ll be impressed with what your kids can come up with.