When Should Children be Responsible?

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I just found this sight and I already feel so relieved that you may be able to help. I already read e-mail about 10yr old "forgetful" girl. My question is how responsible can I legitimately expect my 10 yr old step-son to be. I believe he "forgets" to do chores right or brush his teeth etc. because he gets special undivided attention when he is getting in trouble even though it is negative attention. He is a very intelligent boy. His biological mother is rarely in the picture and constantly lets him down never making him feel important and I think he is replacing that much needed good feeling with all negative attention.

We have issues every single day of him "forgetting" to do everything. He refuses to take any responsibility or accountability for his actions. His regular response is..."uh I forgot". We have tried the special time for him, giving him less responsibility, grounding him, taking his things away etc. but you see his biological mother is constantly letting him down every time we are able to build him up even just a little bit. Since I have no control over that how do I get any kind of consistency when there is always a new issue with her?

My biggest concern is I worry that he may be getting disciplined for things he isn't capable of doing at his age. Should he be able to remember to brush his teeth, make his bed when he cleans the room, put a trash bag in the garbage after it is dumped? These problems occur every single day over and over no matter how many times he is told.These issues are frustrating me so much that I am not being the mother I am capable of being to any of my kids because I am always upset or dealing with this issue. P.S. just to prove I think it is all on purpose he is on the citizenship honor roll at school for his exceptional RESPONSIBILITY! I try not to get upset but it’s been going on for so long............thank you for your attention to this matter

Sincerely; Frustrated step-mom


Dear Frustrated step-mom,

I appreciate how hard you are trying and that you want so much to be a good mom and step-mom. Much of what you describe is so normal for children of all ages. Later I’ll share some special considerations for step-children.

First let’s discuss what it means to be responsible. Does it mean that children should do what their parents want, how they want it, and when they want it—even if it is very low (or not even on) their priority list? How responsible are you regarding things you don’t care about?
I’m sure there are some things you don’t like to do, but still care about—such as a clean house. But adults often expect children to be “responsible” in areas they don’t like and don’t care about.
I’m not saying your step-son should not have to do things such as brush his teeth, clean his room, and take out the garbage, but you will save yourself a lot of frustration if you stop expecting him to be “responsible” in these areas.

Following are some suggestions that might be more effective:

  1. Accept that you might need to remind him and do it cheerfully. (Beats reminding with frustration.)
  2. Give a small choice. “Would you like to do this now or after dinner?”
  3. Have him create a routine chart that works for him. Let him make a list of all the things he needs to do and the times he will do them. Let him draw pictures or create symbols after each task. Then let the routine chart be the boss. If you find the need to say anything it can be to simply say, “What is next on your routine chart?”
  4. Have regular family meetings where you discuss solutions to problems—over and over. Let the kids keep coming up with ideas that focus on solutions. When a solution doesn’t work, do it again.
  5. Ask for help (for what is important to you) and appreciate it. “I would really appreciate it if you empty the garbage now.” They say thank you. (Isn’t that easier than being continually frustrated because he isn’t “responsible” for things that are important to you.)
    All of these suggestions provide a small sense of power to children. This is very important for step-children. A friend shared the following perspective that may help you get into your step son’s world.

“. . . I was reliving all my feelings of having been a kid from a divorced family and being put in situations with new step parents or long time relationships. I didn't matter how much I liked my parent's new partners--I also hated them and the fact that my world changed in unexpected ways----It wasn't fair----Who did this "other" person think they were to come in and start making changes (or as I "saw" it, run the show, try to "be" my mom or dad--when they weren't etc.) As the kid it was hard and painful to be in conflict over liking someone and hating the situation. I remember also the challenges my parents faced having to be in the middle of a new spouse and their kids.

Another thing I remember is that it was unfair on another level. My parents got what they wanted--better partnerships, more happiness, being true to their needs and desires---while us kids got a broken family, felt torn between our parents, new people influencing our parents and how things were done, and less of our parents time and attention because now they had a whole new relationship to nurture and one that was a lot of fun (and hard work, of course).
I write this with a little trepidation---that this may be hard or trigger people who are divorced or in similar situations---but

I think it's important to have some idea about the PERCEPTION of the kid’s point of view....
and that I think I would have been so grateful if my parents thought about this stuff as carefully as you have---and if they did, if I would have KNOWN it!”

I hope these ideas are helpful,
Best wishes,
Jane Nelsen

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