Create responsibility through powerful conversations

What kind of conversations are you having with your children? How do you teach them responsibility by having the right conversations?

Steffan Surdek
July 10, 2017
Father And Son

A few months ago, I wrote an article to share the story of how we guided our kids through the last few months with our cat. I wrote it at the time to share a story I felt could be useful to other parents in similar situations. Turns out that it was one of the more popular articles on the site so I thought it would be fun to try this again!

When you take the time to think about it, parenthood is the ultimate form of leadership by permission. How we interact with our kids shapes and molds how they will act with us. Our interactions are also what encourages them to give us the permission to lead them.

Recently, I have been talking with friends having challenges with their kids behaviors. I shared with them a story of an experience we had teaching some responsibility to our son. They asked me where we learned this and where they could read more and I told them we made it up on the fly. Their request inspired me to share this story here in case it can be useful for other parents.

Teaching responsibility with constraints

Since they were young, we always spoke to our kids in an age appropriate way instead of like babies. As parents, we also got in the habit of aligning our positions when speaking with them. This saved us situations where the kids could go to one or the other depending on what they wanted.

When my son turned eight years old, we started letting him self-organize at bedtime. We made sure he was in the shower for 8:00pm but after that, he was free to read as late as he wanted. We never went back up to check on him, we trusted him to go to sleep when he was ready. The only rule was no video games or electronic devices in his room.

At the time, another rule of the house was that to play video games, the kids had a limited amount of poker chips per week. Each chip was worth 30 minutes of playing time and once they finished using them, that was it.

Teaching responsibility with consequences

One night, we accidentally discovered he snuck up his Nintendo 3DS in his room at night. We were not happy, confronted him about it and took away all electronic devices for two weeks.

He accepted his punishment and spent his time doing a lot of other things. He was very grateful when he got it back at the end of the two weeks. We considered the case closed and returned to not checking on him on evenings after that.

A few months later, before going upstairs, we noticed his tablet was not plugged on the charger. We looked around and we could not find it anywhere so we concluded he snuck it in his room. The next morning, when we woke him up, we asked him where his tablet was.

He was a bit surprised by the question and did not know what to answer. He finally pulled it out from under his pillow. We took it away (along with other electronics) and informed him he would not see them for the next month.

Teaching responsibility with conversations

We had a conversation with him a few days later. We shared with him that for us, this was a trust issue. We explained that we gave him complete freedom and never went back to check in on him because we trusted him.

We also explained that sneaking electronics upstairs and hiding them broke this trust. We asked him what he preferred: having us trust him or having us check on him every night? To get what he wanted or needed, we needed to be able to trust him again.

The other interesting conversation we had was letting him know he could talk to us about his needs too. For example, if his current weekly supply of poker chips was not enough, we could have that discussion. We made it clear we wanted to have conversations and trust instead of lies and mistrust.

Teaching responsibility by living up to your word

A few weeks later, I was helping my son with his homework. Toward the end or our time together, he comes to see me, nervous and says he needs to talk to me. He then proceeds to tell me that he was sneaking his tablet in his room again at night.

I looked at him and thanked him for having the courage to share that with me. Then I asked him why he did that and he explained he felt he did not have enough video game time. I told him that I could hear that but that we needed to have this discussion with his mother as well.

So we called my better half upstairs and let her know he had something to tell her. He confessed once again what he did and we started talking with him about his needs. We asked what he wanted and what he was comfortable with. We went back and forth a bit and agreed on a new time allotment that worked for us all.

I remember being very proud of him in that moment for having the courage to speak to us about it. We did not punish him at all, we thanked him for coming to us and made no big deal of it afterwards.


I am sharing one situation here where we had this kind of discussion with him but we have had others too. What fascinates me every time is his willingness to do this with us and the level of trust that it builds between us.

When we punish him, he generally accepts responsibility for his actions. The rare few times that he complains, we explain to him about how we could have made a different choice but did not. Because of this, he needs to accept the consequences. The challenge is always in making sure the punishment is fair but if we go overboard, we apologize and adjust it.

When he does what we ask of him and he sees there is no punishment for mistakes, he trusts our parental leadership. All we are doing is telling him how to meet our needs so that we can better listen to and try to meet his.

We try to make these things clear for him and offer up possible conversations. In the case of the video games for example, we guessed that he felt he wanted more time but did not know how to tell us about it. So we gave him words that help him to have the conversation he maybe wanted to have with us.

You could argue we could have taken the lead and spoken to him about his need for more time. That is true but doing it this way allowed him to discover he had the courage to do it when he needed to.

What kind of conversations are you having with your children? How do you encourage your kids to have the conversations they need to have with you? What are you going to do differently to bring your conversations with your kids to the next level?

Please note: For full disclosure once again, my son Jonathan reads these posts before I publish them. I do this to make sure he feels the story is true and that he feels respected when he reads the content. He has final say over if I publish the posts or not.