Am I Doing Too Much? How to Help Kids Become More Responsible

Happy kiddos, heading out into the world….


One morning last fall, I just had to walk away.  Homeschooling was not going well, specifically grammar, and I had to just take a break.  No, we all needed a break.  It was a Monday, my daughter was coming off her 10th birthday celebration, and we were in a sprint down Letdown Lane.

Ok, I’ll admit it.  I didn’t just walk away.  I went and hid in my bedroom.

Before I retreated, I gave my kids their science books and asked them to read.  I honestly didn’t think they’d do it (they did admit to playing Minecraft on my kindle), but the proof was there the next day:  they had done the work.

They, under the tutelage of my older son, read aloud and outlined their science assignment.

They wrote out the vocabulary words.

They labelled the sketches in their workbook.

All.  On.  Their.  Own.

Needless to say, Mom was wowed.

And the kids were proud.  (Rhyming not intended.)

It was also a relief.  My husband and I had been thinking we need to encourage more self-guided study but I, being a barely-closeted control freak, didn’t think my kids would do the work.  Boy, was I wrong.  Not only did my kids step up to the challenge, they loved the autonomy.

Which made me realize I am

doing too much for my kids.

It’s deja vu for the umpteenth time.  As when I find myself picking up the kids’ shoes and coats.  Or clearing the remains of an afternoon snack left on the living room floor and I shake my head, because my kids know the snack rule:  clean up after yourself.

And for the umpteenth time, I scold myself for giving in, because I’m supposed to be teaching my kids responsibility for themselves.  But the guilt, oh the guilt, of making yet another responsibility lecture to sleepy kids dragging themselves through the morning routine:  hearing mom nag, again, about picking up clothes and shoes and bowls.  It’s a bad way to start off the morning.  But wait until after school?  When they are tired of listening to me direct them through learning and need to flake out already?  Why invite a fight?

But I know the answer to that singular, nagging question, the one that fills me with nasty guilt and ends the swirl of doubt every time I face a shoe-and-orange-peel-strewn living room:

Am I doing too much for my kids?

Yeah, I am.

Dr. Erica Reischer, on her blog What Great Parents Do, defines over-functioning parents as parents who complete tasks for their children that their kids are fully capable of doing or learning to do.  A prime example she gives is the constant reminders parents issue to finish homework.  Yup, been there.  Other symptoms of an over-functioning parent can include cleaning a child’s room for him and picking up his dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper.

Oh, boy.

But it’s not just handing over responsibilities that relieves parents of the title  “Overfunctioning,”  it’s allowing kids to experience the natural consequences of not completing those tasks.  So even if her nightly job is to clear the supper dishes, but she does so only with constant reminders, we are still over-functioning parents.


I “over-function” in my own life so it’s a natural extension that I over-function as a parent, too.  But the wake up call for the latter came when I read a simple bit of advice:

Don’t do anything for your kids that they can do for themselves.

Well said.  And the advice presented itself at a time when I was feeling burned out and resentful, tired and stressed, my own needs suffering because I was taking on responsibilities I should have passed along to my kids.  These signs, I also learned, are characteristic of a seemingly-organized, on-top-of-it-all parent who is silently falling apart on the inside.  In other words,

Hi, my name is Heidi.  And I am an over-functioning parent.

Over-functioning parents want what is best for their kids:  success, happiness and freedom from hurt and disappointment.  But if we don’t assign responsibilities and allow negative, natural consequences to occur if kids don’t follow through, kids may

have difficulty getting and keeping jobs

be irresponsible and lack accountability

struggle to set and reach goals

So if we parents expand our hopes for our kids to include

risk-taking (maybe not sky diving…)

independent decision-making (again, rhyming not intended…)

failure-experiencing (ack!!!)

self-relianc-ing (?)

we are on our way to becoming well-functioning parents.

So how do we begin?

First of all,

Get real.  Ask yourself  Why do I do this task for my child?  Can my child do this herself?  And the clencher:  What if I don’t do this task for her?  The answer to this may surprise you…I know it did me.  (As in, the world won’t actual collapse on itself, but dinner may be a little late.  Huh, who knew?)  Also,

Accept that this will be a tough process.  Expect that kids will not only fail (which is hard to watch), they will likely become more “helpless” along the way.  Allow their mistakes.  And, importantly,

Stand your ground.  Don’t give in and do the job for them.  Even though we know we can do it faster and better and are too busy to mess with the, say, mess in the living room, do not give in.  Remember,

Responsibility is a learned skill.  It’s not enough to set the example ourselves and have kids see us hang up our own coats or put away our books on the shelf; they need to be given tasks and even fail to complete them in order to learn this very important trait.  And kids can’t learn it by themselves;  we need to motivate them to practice responsibility and this often means allowing them to fail.  Failure fuels the desire to do better.

So let’s walk through a scenario:

Say it’s popcorn-and-a-movie-night at your house.  But the living room is the site of a Lego World War Three:  the technicolor mass destruction covers the floor, and every available elevated surface in the common living space.  You say to your kids

Ok, the Legos need picked up and put away before we have our movie night.  We won’t start the movie until we can walk through the living room safely and have a place to set the popcorn bowls.  Remember, bedtime is at 8:00 so we will only watch a movie until that time, so let’s clean up now so we can see the whole movie.

You’ve said it.  The kids heard you.  Now repress the urge to remind them of their job and let things ride.  You start making popcorn and peek in the living room.  Your kids are tossing the occasional handful of legos into a bin, but are mostly continuing to build  (honestly, who wouldn’t?  Legos are pretty addictive…).  But stand your ground, hold your tongue.  When the popcorn is made, take a load off.  Read the paper.  The kids are still goofing in the living room, nowhere near done with their cleaning up.  You check the clock:  it is past the time Harry Potter and the Second Movie needed to roll if the kids wanted to see it in its entirety before bed.  They won’t get to see the ending now, since they are not finishing their job.

Sit and wait.  Maybe eat some of that popcorn before it gets cold.

One of your children pops into the kitchen and asks when the movie will start.  At this point, answer him with

When you are done cleaning up in the living room.

He may look at you like you are from Mars and utter an oh, okay…. like he just understood the situation.  You may want to roll your eyes, but don’t.  Just sit and read and eat popcorn.

It’s now really late.  But the kids finally finished their job.  Warm up the DVD player, set out the food, and before you begin your delayed movie evening, give your kids the heads-up

This is a long movie.  We needed to start it at this time in order to finish it before bed, but it’s well-past that time.  It took awhile to clean up the living room so we are starting late.  We won’t let you stay up to finish the movie since it is a school night, and will have to stop the movie when it’s time to get ready for bed.

So there it is: the natural consequence of not following through on a responsibility the kids could handle.  They will be bummed about stopping the movie at the climactic point, and who likes cold popcorn?  (Well, I do, but I won’t tell my kids that….)  But hopefully next time movie night rolls around the kids will remember that to see Harry conquer Voldemort they need to finish their responsibilities in good time.

Ugh, this is a tough process.  But a necessary one.  However, when kids follow through you get to lay on the praise, which is awesome for everyone.

It’s tough to stand aside and watch our kids fail to follow through and struggle.  We’re parents, we want to protect our kids from hurt, disappointment and failure; jumping in to “fix” a situation is a natural urge.  But it’s an urge we need to suppress.  As Dr. Reischer said so well on her blog:

We may be averting some short-term pain or discomfort (both for us and them) by doing so, but in the long-term, we are inadvertently depriving our children of the opportunity to learn and practice important life skills while they are still in the sheltered environment of the family.

And think of it this way.  When kids leave their shoes and coats laying about, and ask you the next day where they are, you get to use the words you hated hearing as a kid yourself:

Your shoes are where you left them last.

I know, a little evil, right?  But it’s a healthy sign of losing the title of Over-Parenting Parent.

Looking a little frustrated? It’s ok…let him figure things out on his own.

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