One day in 1994, my 9-year-old daughter called me at my office to tell me that she had left her lunch money at home again and needed me to bring it to her. This typical forgetfulness by my children was quite annoying but something I thought I was supposed to resolve as a father. On my ride to the school, I couldn’t help but think about the inconvenience. More importantly, I suddenly became concerned about how responsible my daughter would eventually be as an adult if I was constantly remembering for her or rescuing her.
That evening, I gathered my three children for an impromptu family meeting to discuss a few changes that would take effect immediately. I announced that from now on, they were solely responsible for remembering to bring with them any items they needed for school that day — lunch money, homework, and school projects. I advised them that unless it was required for health and safety reasons, I was no longer willing to run home and retrieve what they left behind. My responsibility as a dad teaching his children about limits required me to draw a personal boundary. During that meeting, I also took the time to help them come up with ideas that would enable and empower them to remember on their own.
For the next few weeks, my plan worked and the kids were so proud of themselves with their new sense of responsibility — until one day, my 9-year-old daughter called the office. Expressing worry and distress, she told me she had left a book report poster due that day on the dining room table. She described to me how much time and effort she had spent working on it the night before. She then confirmed that she was aware of my new “dad rule” about leaving things at home, but pleaded with me to bring it to her or she would receive a bad grade on the assignment. She promised that this would be the last time that she would ever call me for anything like this. My initial feeling at that moment was that I could go and get it for her, “just this one time,” because I loved her so much and didn’t want her to fail. But I knew that doing so would violate my boundary and teach her that limits are set to be broken. One of the hardest moments while raising our kids was my decision to tell her that I was abiding by the new family rule, and I was unwilling to retrieve the poster. I wished her a good day, hung up the phone, and cried in my office. As it turned it out, the teacher agreed to give her partial credit for the assignment if she brought it in the very next day; my daughter remembered for herself from that moment on.
Raising cooperative and responsible children requires teaching them about clear, respectful limits and boundaries. It helps them to become self-sufficient and teaches them personal responsibility. Our children want to know “who’s flying the plane” and it’s up to us to show them we’re the pilot!