One day in grade six, Cohen Miller* forgot his homework. He called his mom in a panic from his Calgary elementary school, and she drove it over to him. It took just 10 minutes of her time, but her son still felt bad. “He never forgot his homework again,” recalls mom of two Rachel Miller*. “He thinks about the inconvenience to other people over everything.”
Cohen’s conscientiousness differs from his older brother’s more laissez-faire attitude about some of his responsibilities. When it comes to cleaning his room or pitching in with household chores, for example, Tyson* rarely remembers to do it without a reminder, and only with the threat of losing his phone.
In the tug-of-war between parents and children, mom and dad are eager to unload responsibilities, but some kids will push back against them, while others seem to need constant reminding.
Navigating this grey zone between dependence and autonomy can be perplexing for parents. We want to nudge kids toward independence, but we’re not quite sure when (or how) to get them to pull more weight. Do we remind them ad nauseam, or do we shut up and hope they put up (and then let them experience the consequence if they forget)?
Experts call this handing over of responsibility “governance transfer.” Sheila Marshall, an affiliated faculty member in the division of adolescent health and medicine at the University of British Columbia, has studied it extensively. She says there’s no magic age when parents can expect their kids to fully manage their own affairs. Some embrace new responsibilities and take off running by age 10, while others are content to let mom pack their lunch and remind them to study for tests all through high school.
“Some kids are a little dreamier or have trouble remembering things. Other kids are just by nature more organized,” says Sarah Rosensweet, a parenting coach and educator in Toronto. “We have to keep that in mind—what is your child’s temperament and personality?”
Even disorganized kids can become responsible. The key is to start empowering them early—not the week before middle school begins. “Think of it as scaffolding,” says Rosensweet. “With your five-year-old, you’ll pack their backpack for them. Your eight-year-old, you might ask them if they have all the things they need in the backpack and get them to confirm. And your 12-year-old, you probably aren’t asking them anything about their backpack.”
Along the way, chat with your child about what you’d like them to take on and what they feel capable of handling. Once the expectations have been laid out and agreed to, step back and don’t be afraid to let them fail. “Let them forget their lunch a few times,” says Marshall. “Natural, logical consequences work really well for some kids.”
Letting your child fail can be scary, says mom Allison Schuchman. But she feels it’s better for her daughter Elle, 11, to learn these lessons now, when the consequences are still small. “Not doing math homework now will mean missing recess. But if you don’t do your work on time when you have a job, you might get fired,” says Schuchman.
If your child just keeps forgetting, though, it means they need support to become independent in this area. Problem solving with them about ways to remember all the stuff—perhaps a checklist by the door highlighting their lunch, school work, backpack and clarinet—is more constructive and effective than nagging. “If you feel like you’re nagging a lot, it might be time to have a sit-down with your child and say, ‘This is ultimately your responsibility. How can I help you?’” says Rosensweet.
When your kid does fail, it’s important not to scold them. “If you start to pile on, they shift all the regret and remorse into resentment of you for not understanding, and they don’t learn the lesson,” says Rosensweet.
Instead, show you’re on their team: “Let’s brainstorm ways to help you remember.”
*Names have been changed