It was a lunch break at a conference when a woman started talking about how stressed she was.

She’s a single mother, working full-time, caring for her two daughters and trying to complete her Ph.D. thesis.  “If I just didn’t have to make their lunch every day. That little bit taken off my shoulders would be such a relief,” she said.

I asked how old her daughters were. She said they were twelve and fourteen.  “Twelve and fourteen,” I said, a little surprised.  “Well, I have an easy solution for you. Why don’t you have them make their own lunches.”

“I tried that,” she said. “They did it once, and never did it again.”

The conference was reconvening, and the conversation was cut short.  The next day, I ran into her again. We talked about a few topics from the conference. Then I said to her, “You know, that lunch thing is important.”

“You think so?”

“Really important,” I said. “After all, what else will you enable your daughters not to do? Or, disable them not to do?”

“Yeah, I get it,” she said, “but how do I get them to make their lunches?”

“First, you have to sit them down and explain how important this is to you.  Don’t just mention it in passing. Make it a somewhat formal meeting. Explain how hard you work and how determined you are to see that they have everything they need. Next, tell them what a big help it would be to you if they make their own lunches every day. Explain that in life, it is so important to meet your responsibilities, just like they see you doing every day. Now, you’re giving them a responsibility.  Emphasize that you are placing your trust in them. People feel honored by this. 

“Make a plan together. Decide the best time each evening or morning for them to make their lunch. Start with two days of the week. After a week or two, make it a regular daily routine. You can prompt them the first time or two. After their first success, thank them and remind them how much it means to you.  When they complete their first full week, get them a little token gift or treat.  Don’t overdo it. Once you have them routinized on this, you can drop off the prompts and rewards, except for a little reward once in a while as a good reminder that they have achieved something important.”

Then, the obvious question came. “And, what if they don’t do it,” she asked.

That’s where most parents fail. They throw up their hands and do it themselves. There are often two dynamics going on here. One, the parent wants to feel needed, wants to be in control and retain authority.  Secondly, they’re afraid to be firm with their kids. They’re fearful of their children’s ire or to see them unhappy.  But, these are the key moments where parents have to tough it out, brace themselves, and wait for the mini-storm to pass. In almost every instance, the storm will be minor and pass quickly.  Parents who fail in these critical moments are the ones who may end up picking their kids clothes out to wear in the morning  when they’re twenty years old, or paying their credit card bills when their twenty-eight, or making all kinds of excuses when they’re living at home and don’t have a job at thirty. Yikes!!!  I’ve seen it all and so have you.

“You have to be able to show some genuine anger and disappointment,” I told her. “You can’t just let them off the hook. In addition, you have to be willing to take something away, even if you’re feeling some hurt over it yourself.  You might tell them that if they can’t do this small thing for you, and for themselves, then you won’t be able to take them to that birthday party this Saturday or their soccer practice on Sunday.  Will that be hard for you to do? Will that pain you?  I’m pretty sure it will. But, it will likely happen only once in a great while, and it will save you from so much more pain down the line.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to do it.”

She looked a little shaken and resolute. I believe she took in every word I said.  I didn’t keep in touch, but I do believe she followed through.

A week later, a middle manager called me asking for help with his team. “They just don’t meet their deadlines,” he told me. “I have to remind them, get after them constantly, and they still don’t meet their deadlines.”

I wish I had gotten that woman’s contact information. I would have had her coach him through his problem.