Dear Kid Whisperer,
My fourth grader is very smart, but very forgetful. He usually leaves his lunch at home and often forgets his homework, either at school or at home. I have ten questions that I will use to prompt him to remember to do things and be more responsible, but I often end up bringing him his homework or lunch or both. I’ve tried everything to try to get him to be organized. Is there anything else that I can do? -Kim, Biloxi, Mississippi
This sounds exhausting, and familiar.
The natural consequences of forgetting will change his behavior as long as you
2) Do not own the problem.
No one wants to see their kid sad, but the universe is teaching him the value of remembering. Just stay out of the way. This suffering the universe is giving your kid is a gift. Kids are not going to be damaged by feeling terrible about messing something up. He’ll be fine.
I, myself, am and will always be a forgetful person. It drove my parents nuts when I would forget backpacks and lunches and homework. I never became more responsible because my mom owned my problems by sitting with me and holding my hand while she “taught me how to be organized”. I never solved my problem because I thought that it was her problem. However, I still suffered through the embarrassment for years (K-12) AND my mom was completely exhausted and very happy to see me go away to college, where I magically became pretty responsible since my mother was no longer there to “help” me.
Everything we say and our actions towards our kids should say, “I love you, and this is your problem” (in that order).
Your list of prompts and exhaustive attempts to get your kid organized all imply that his lunch and his homework are your problems. They aren’t. Here’s the way I look at it. My two favorite things to do in the world are
1) Teaching kids how to be responsible, empathetic, resourceful people
2) Doing absolutely nothing.
Whenever I can do both at the same time, I’m a happy man.
So when my daughter forgets her homework, I think back to how my mom would save me by going and getting my lunch, or would sit with me for hours trying to color-code organizational systems. I remember how none of that worked for me. At the very most, if I notice that she is missing something, I may ask her, as I walk briskly out the door, if she is forgetting something. I may not. Either way, it isn’t my problem. If we are on the ride to school and she notices that she doesn’t have her homework, I will handle it this way:
Kid: Ahhhggg! I don’t have my homework! All is lost!
Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. That’s not good. What’s your plan?
Kid: Abort! Abort! We need to go back to the house and retrieve my homework!
Kid Whisperer: Oh geez, nope. This car is already on the way to school and won’t be turning around. I love you and know that you will figure something out.
Crying, yelling, anger and sadness could happen, and these are all signs of a kid who is learning to be responsible.
Your kid, my daughter, and I are all people who are just natural space cadets. We will just have to suffer more through our spaceyness than others do before we change our behavior. “Helping” space cadets like us by owning the problem or taking a lot of time with us to problem-solve isn’t very efficient. Ironically, it will actually cause more suffering in the long run because the kid will never learn until the adults around him allow for some acute but manageable suffering now instead of having chronic suffering- and an exhausted parent- over the course of an entire childhood.