Amy Stewart Wright, 31, of Granite Quarry, N.C. (pop. 2,930), says her teenage son usually does his homework and after-school chores on time. But lately, Bret, 13, has been putting things off until too late. “So we’ve been talking a lot about why it’s important to get your work done,” Wright says.
For example, one of Bret’s chores is doing laundry. “We’ve discussed the fact that he’ll need to know how to do his own laundry when he goes off to college,” Wright says. “More immediately, if the laundry doesn’t get done today, guess what? He won’t have clean clothes tomorrow.”
Although it might be easier just to do the laundry herself, Wright believes that one of her jobs is nurturing Bret’s sense of responsibility.
“Teenagers have a strong tendency to rise to the expectations you set for them,” says Lisa Greenberg, a psychologist in Madison, N.J. “If you assume that teens have the good will and skill to behave responsibly, they’re much more likely to act that way.” When you have this positive attitude, the occasional lapse becomes “a small glitch to be resolved, not a sign of basic irresponsibility,” Greenberg says.
Young adults, not old children
Teenagers often are more responsible and capable than we give them credit, says Robert Epstein, a psychologist in San Diego, Calif., and author of Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. “Your main job as a parent is to bring them forward into the adult world—not hold them back by treating them like children,” he says.
Expect mature behavior, and then help your teen make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here are three tips for fostering teenage responsibility:
Ask for input. If there is a problem, ask for your teen’s thoughts on how to resolve it. For example, if household chores aren’t getting done, Greenberg suggests saying something like this: “Nobody around here has enough time and energy to do it all, so everybody needs to chip in. Which chores would you prefer to do? You may not always wind up doing exactly what you want, but at the very least, you have a voice that will be considered.”
Talk about values. Start a conversation about what each of you values. Your teen’s values may not be identical to your own, and that’s OK. “Look for the overlap,” Greenberg says. “Is there some goal that you both agree is worth pursuing?” If so, use that goal as a motivator for responsible choices. For example, both Bret and his mom share the goal of seeing him go to college after high school. That’s a good motivator for him to work on skills he’ll need for academic success and living on his own.
Offer role models. Teens learn how to be grown-ups by example, so they need plenty of time with you and other responsible adults. “In our country, teens often spend 70 hours or more per week with other teenagers,” Epstein says. “But in many cultures around the world, they spend closer to five hours per week with peers. Most of their contact is with adults.” One way for your teen to get more grown-up time is by seeking a volunteer position, unpaid internship or summer job.