QUESTION: Our 12-year-old son loses everything – his backpack, his baseball glove, his sweatshirts – and doesn’t think it’s a big deal. How do we make him understand the value of these things?
BBB: Losing possessions and not appreciating the value of things may or may not go together. There are some people who would lose their heads if they weren’t attached, right? Sometimes children (teens included) who are unable to keep track of their stuff, who have trouble with follow-through, who are disorganized, cannot be blamed for these deficits. The child may have an attentional (ADD, for example) or a processing disorder. It might not be his fault.
However, before you run for an evaluation, you need to ask yourself if you might have enabled this behavior. Let’s think about what expectations you have had for your child. Early in a child’s life is when the parent begins to teach about taking responsibility of all kinds. Have you taught your child to be self-reliant? Has he been expected to be responsible since he was old enough to manage? If the parent has always saved the child – brought his lunch to school when he forgot it, bought him yet another batting glove when he lost it again, emailed the teacher for the assignment when he can’t find it – it is likely that the child never had to be responsible. And if this has been the case, it wasn’t a big deal to the child. Mommy to the rescue!
(If this is you, I suggest you read my chapters on Self Reliance and Responsibility in my book You’re Not the Boss of Me. Time is running out!)
It is time to make losing stuff a bigger deal to your son. Here are a few tips:
Next time he loses, misplaces, forgets anything, do not save him. If he doesn’t have his jacket, do not replace it. Then pray for snow here in the Palisades.
Allow your son to suffer the consequences of his behavior. When he can’t find his soccer shoes, he will have to sit on the sidelines at the next practice or game. No sympathy please. (It is so hard for a parent to watch her child feel sad, suffer or lose out. But it is necessary in order for the child to change. Talk is cheap and so is enabling behavior.)
In advance, make sure your child is aware of the consequences, whatever they may be, for his irresponsibility. If you leave your homework at home, I am not bringing it to school. You will get a zero on the assignment. Or If you lose your jacket, YOU will need to replace it.
You are not the Bank of Mommy. Stop paying for things for your child. If he has to replace the lost sweatshirt using his own money, he will certainly learn that $30 sweatshirts don’t grow on trees. Pay for only one movie a month, one lunch from the cafeteria, one day of afterschool snacks. Beyond that, he needs to fund the extras himself. When he wants the fancy, expensive cross trainer shoes, tell him how much you will pay and let him pay the rest from his own savings. Otherwise, he’s wearing the generic shoes.
All children should have an allowance or a way to earn their own money. It is easy to spend someone else’s money, and it is “no big deal” anyway. (For more information on allowances, go to my book. You’re Not the Boss of Me.)
It is likely that you are constantly on your child’s case about losing his stuff. It is also likely that your child has learned to close his ears to your exasperated comments and your hollow threats. The time has come for you NOT to react. When he complains about his lost backpack, calmly and without any emotion, simply say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” Say nothing more, and do nothing at all. Let it be your child’s problem to figure out. Remember, he is in that stage of development when he looks for every way to engage you. Don’t take the bait.
If after you have closed down the mommy-bank for some months, after you have stopped engaging your child over his forgetfulness and your child has not been motivated to keep track of his stuff, if he still doesn’t care, then it is likely time to consider some outside help. Perhaps a visit with a mental health professional who specializes in teens and adolescents is in order. It will be better than you biting his head off.
Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator, and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. She has taught in both public and private schools, has been a school director, and was the founding director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Early Childhood Center in Los Angeles. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and other professionals. She is the award winning author of the best selling, “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” Betsy has been featured on the Today Show, The Early Show, Good Morning, America, America Now, Dr. Phil, The Rachael Ray Show, Fox and Friends. She has been a guest on NPR and regularly contributes to KNX News Radio, and radio stations nationwide. Betsy’s expertise has been cited in Parents Magazine, Twins Magazine, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, and in numerous city specific newspapers and family magazines. Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have three grandchildren, so far.