Promoting Responsibility

By Eve Kessler, Esq.

At A Glance

Promoting responsibility and independence in kids requires parents to step back from doing things for them rather than with them • Breaking the pattern involves motivating new behaviors through positive communication and encouragement

Raising complex kids requires exceptional parenting, explains school psychologist David P. Sylvestro. Kids with learning and attention issues typically have weak executive function skills and lack motivation for important, non-preferred or boring activities. 

From setting the table and loading the dishwasher to doing the laundry and making the bed, parents inevitably find themselves doing tasks their kids are assigned to do. “Expediency always wins out,” acknowledges Sylvestro. “It’s just easier to do it yourself.”

But by doing things for—instead of with—your kids, you’re preventing them from learning vital skills and moving forward. As they learn to resist new responsibilities you begin to fear they will never become self-sufficient. 

Understandably, you become frustrated, concerned, and overwhelmed. Perhaps you lose your temper, raise your voice, or over-do your corrections. “It seems counter-intuitive that if you don’t point out your kids’ mistakes, they’re not going to change their behaviors,” says Sylvestro. “But that’s not how brains process negative words.”

If kids feel you’re always criticizing them, and they can never do anything right, they’ll give up.

Breaking the Pattern

To help kids move towards independence, Sylvestro suggests shifting your perspective: “Strengthen your own positive communication skills and learn how to encourage and reinforce your kids’ development in essential areas.” 

The more positive you are, the more effective you’ll be as parents and the more confident your kids will be to risk changing behaviors and accepting more responsibility.

The following guidelines are Sylvestro’s strategies to help promote greater independence:

1. Create an all-around atmosphere that accentuates the positive. Negative behaviors naturally get attention, while positive behaviors are often ignored. “Let’s flip this,” says Sylvestro. “Try retooling your focus and perception and conscientiously look for things your kids do well, even if they’re relatively minor.”

2. State clear, predictable expectations. Extra clarity is important for kids with weak receptive language, working memory, and processing speed. Be cognizant of how your kids perceive what you tell them—what they hear and retain. Ask them to repeat and explain your requests and follow up by either acknowledging their “good listening” skills or rephrasing and clarifying.

3. Incentivize requests. When you ask your kids to do something, you want them to be motivated. It’s hard to be inspired, however, if the task sounds boring from the start. “Semantics is important,” says Sylvestro. “Chores” sounds tedious, while “contribute to the family” and “take personal responsibility” resonate as constructive and valuable. Also, state commands positively. The first word you say sets the tone: “Be patient” or “Be polite”  goes a lot farther than “Don’t interrupt” or “Stop being rude.”

4. Give frequent praise and recognition. Kids love praise, stresses Sylvestro, “but most of us overestimate the amount of praise we give.” Tag rewards to specific behavior and strive for at least five praises for every negative comment, “but don’t count!”

5. Set limits and follow through reliably. Setting limits can be a difficult, conflict-laden task, especially when kids are testing the parameters of your rules. When you can—and especially when you’re feeling particularly stressed—think of ways to be reasonably positive. For example, if your teen returns home 25 minutes after curfew but is usually dependable, acknowledge her good conduct, instead of correcting: You’ve been showing us that you can meet your curfew well—what happened tonight? Next time she misses curfew, you can reconsider your response and consequences.

6. Become positive spin-doctors. See the glass as half full when responding to problem behaviors. “Compliment and support your child on what they have accomplished, as a springboard for getting the rest done,” advises Sylvestro. If they don’t finish their homework, say, Nice job completing #1, 2 & 4. Need any help with the rest? If their room is still 50 percent messy after an hour of cleaning, celebrate that half is done and encourage them: Nice beginning here! What part should you do after a little break?

7. Re-frame your kids’ negative descriptors. Instead of seeing themselves as lazy; stupid; dumb; bad; or unable to learn, re-frame their narratives: easily discouraged, cautious risk-takers, or deliberate workers; explain their specific needs: having language gaps or processing issues; and encourage them to think of themselves as having different strengths, possessing unique courage, having potential, or benefitting from creative teaching

8. Encourage your kids to use positive self-talk. I can do better next time. I am proud of myself for trying. I can get through this. I can take a chance to try something new. If they can use—and internalize—positive descriptors, they will gain self-confidence and self-esteem, feel more in control, build healthier relationships, and have something to aspire to.

This article is based on a webinar, Encouraging Responsibility and Independence: The Power of Positive Communication, by David P. Sylvestro, MA, CSP, a school psychologist who specializes in working with kids with attention and learning challenges. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT),, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. A recording of the entire webinar is available at