So how do we raise our kids to take responsibility for their choices and their impact on the world?
You begin by seeing responsibility as something joyful for your child, instead of a burden. All children want to see themselves as response-able — powerful and able to respond to what needs to be done. They need this for their self esteem, and for their lives to have meaning. Children don’t want just to be doted on. They need, like the rest of us, to feel like they matter to the world, like their lives make a positive contribution.
So, you don’t really need to teach them to handle themselves responsibly in the world; you just need to teach them that they have the power to contribute positively, and to relate to them so that they want to do so.
The bottom line is that kids will be responsible to the degree that we support them to be. Here are 15 everyday strategies guaranteed to increase your kids’ “response-ability” quotient, plus a list of age-appropriate responsibilities.
Notice that these lists focus on your child’s span of control, rather than on tasks you want them to do. There’s a reason for that. When you focus on a list of tasks your child “should” do, you end up creating power struggles. “By now you should be able to clean up your own toys!” If, instead, you focus on helping your child take charge of his life, and support him as necessary to learn each new skill, your child wants to step into each new responsibility. Instead of your “holding him responsible,” he becomes motivated to take responsibility for himself. It’s a subtle shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.
1. Raise your child with the expectation that we always clean up our own messes.
Begin by helping your child, until she learns it. She’ll learn it faster if you can be cheerful and kind about it and remember not to worry about spilled milk. Encourage her to help by handing her a sponge as you pick one up yourself, even when it’s easier to do it yourself. (And it’s almost always easier to do it yourself.) As long as you aren’t judgmental about it–so she isn’t defensive–she’ll want to help clean up and make things better.
So when your toddler spills her milk, say “That’s ok. We can clean it up,” as you hand her a paper towel and pick one up yourself. When your preschooler leaves her shoes scattered in your path, hand them to her and ask her to put them away, saying kindly “We always clean up our own stuff.”
You will have to do this, in one form or another, until they leave your home. But if your approach is positive and light-hearted, your child won’t get defensive and whine that you should do the cleanup. And when kids hear the constant friendly expectation that “We always clean up our own messes…Don’t worry, I’ll help….Here’s the paper towels for you; I’ll get the sponge…” they become both easier to live with and better citizens of the world.
2. Kids need an opportunity to contribute to the common good.
All children contribute to the rest of us in some way, regularly. Find those ways and comment on them, even if it is just noticing when she is kind to her little brother or that you enjoy how she’s always singing. Whatever behaviors you acknowledge will grow.
As your children get older, their contributions should increase appropriately, both within and outside the household. Kids need to grow into two kinds of responsibilities: their own self care, and contributing to the family welfare. Research indicates that kids who help around the house are also more likely to offer help in other situations than kids who simply participate in their own self care.
Of course, you can’t expect them to develop a helpful attitude overnight. It helps to steadily increase responsibility in age appropriate ways. Invite toddlers to put napkins on the table, three year olds to set places. Four year olds can match socks, and five year olds can help you groom the dog. Six year olds are ready to clear the table, seven year olds to water plants, and eight year olds to fold laundry.
3. Remember that no kid in his right mind wants to do “chores.”
Unless you want your child to think of contributing to the family as drudgery, don’t “make” him do chores without you until they are a regular part of your family routine, and one that your child does not resist. Your goal isn’t getting this job done, it’s shaping a child who will take pleasure in contributing and taking responsibility. Make the job fun. Give as much structure, support, and hands-on help as you need to, including sitting with him and helping for the first thirty times he does the task, if necessary. Know that it will be much harder than doing it yourself. Remind yourself that there’s joy in these tasks, and communicate that, along with the satisfaction of a job well done. Eventually, he will be doing these tasks by himself. That day will come much faster if he enjoys them.
4. Always let children “do it myself” and “help” even when it’s more work for you.
And it will always be more work for you. But toddlers want desperately to master their physical worlds, and when we support them to do that, they step into the responsibility of being “response-able.” So instead of rushing through your list, reframe. You’re working with your child to help him discover the satisfaction of contribution. That’s more important than having the job done quickly or perfectly. Notice that you’re also bonding, which is what motivates kids to keep contributing.
5. Rather than simply giving orders, try asking your child to do the thinking.
For instance, to the dallying child in the morning, instead of barking “Brush your teeth! Is your backpack packed? Don’t forget your lunch!,” you could ask “What’s the next thing you need to do to get ready for school?” The goal is to keep them focused on their list, morning after morning, until they internalize it and begin managing their own morning tasks.
6. Provide routines and structure.
These are crucial in children’s lives for many reasons, not the least of which is that it gives them repeated opportunities to manage themselves through a series of not especially inviting tasks. First, they master the bedtime routine and cleaning up toys and getting ready in the morning. Then they develop successful study habits and grooming habits. Finally, they learn basic life skills through repetition of household routines like doing laundry or making simple meals.
7. Teach your child to be responsible for her interactions with others.
When your daughter hurts her little brother’s feelings, don’t force her to apologize. She won’t mean it, and it won’t help him. Instead, listen to her feelings to help her work out those tangled emotions that made her snarl at him. Then, once she feels better, ask her what she can do to make things better between them. Maybe she’ll be ready to apologize. But maybe that will feel like losing face, and she would rather repair things with him by reading him a story, or helping him with his chore of setting the table, or giving him a big hug. This teaches children that their treatment of others has a cost, and that they’re responsible for repairs when they do damage. But because you aren’t forcing, she’s able to CHOOSE to make the repair, which makes it feel good, and makes her more likely to repeat it.
8. Support your child to help pay for damaged goods.
If kids help pay from their own allowance for lost library books and cell phones, windows broken by their baseball, or tools they’ve left out to rust, the chances of a repeat infraction are slim.
9. Don’t rush to bail your child out of a difficult situation.
Be available for problem-solving, helping him work through his feelings and fears, and to insure that he doesn’t just sidestep the difficulty, but let him handle the problem himself, whether it requires offering an apology or making amends in a more concrete way.
10. Model responsibility and accountability.
Be explicit about the responsible choices you’re making:
“It’s a pain to carry this trash till we get to the car, but I don’t see a trashcan and we never litter.”
“This sign says parking is reserved for handicapped people, so of course we can’t take that spot.”
Keep your promises to your child, and don’t make excuses. If you don’t follow through when you promise to pick up that notebook he needs for school, or play that game with him on Saturday, why should he be responsible about keeping his promises and agreements with you?
11. Never label your child as “Irresponsible”
Never label your child as “Irresponsible,” because the way we see our kids is always a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, teach him the skills he needs to be responsible. If he always loses things, for instance, help him develop the skills he needs. For instance, teach him to stop anytime he leaves somewhere — his friend’s house, school, soccer practice — and count off everything he needs to take home.
12. Teach your child to make a written schedule.
It may seem like overkill, but in our busy 21st century lives, all kids need to master this skill by high school, or they simply won’t get everything done. Begin on weekends during middle school, or earlier, if their schedule is busy. Just take a piece of paper, list the hours of the day on the left, and ask your child what he needs to get done this weekend. Put in the baseball game, piano practice, the birthday party, and all the steps of the science project – shop for materials, build the volcano, write and print out the description. Add downtime — go for ice cream with dad, chill and listen to music. Most kids find this keeps their stress level down, since they know when everything will get done. Most important, it teaches them to manage their time and be responsible about their commitments.
14. All kids need the experience of working for pay.
All kids need the experience of working for pay, which teaches them real responsibility in the real world. Begin by paying your eight year old to do tasks you wouldn’t normally expect of him (washing the car, weeding the garden), then encourage him to expand to odd jobs in the neighborhood (walk the neighbor’s dog or offer snow shoveling service in the winter), move on to mother’s helper/babysitting jobs when it’s age appropriate, and finally take on after-school or summer jobs. Few settings teach as much about responsibility as the world of working for pay outside the family.
14. Create a No-Blame Household.
We all, automatically, want to blame someone when things go wrong. It’s as if fixing blame might prevent a recurrence of the problem, or absolve us of responsibility. In reality, blaming makes everyone defensive, more inclined to watch their back — and to attack — than to make amends. It’s the #1 reason kids lie to their parents. Worse yet, when we blame them, kids find all kinds of reasons it wasn’t really their fault — at least in their own minds — so they’re less likely to take responsibility and the problem is more likely to repeat.
Blame is the opposite of unconditional love. So why do we do it? To help us feel less out of control, and because we can’t bear the suspicion that we also had some role, however small, in creating the situation. Next time you find yourself automatically beginning to blame someone, stop. Instead, accept any responsibility you can – it’s good practice to overstate your responsibility – without beating yourself up. (You’re modeling, remember?) Then, just accept the situation. You can always come up with better solutions from a state of acceptance than a state of blame.
15. Teach your kids that as Eleanor Roosevelt said, they not only have the right to be an individual, they have an obligation to be one.
Studies show that people who take responsibility in any given situation are people who see themselves as willing to be different and stand out. That’s the kind of kid you want to raise.
What’s age appropriate? The list below will give you a frame of reference, but obviously, you’ll need to adapt this chart to your own child and your family circumstances. Remember to slowly build the degree of freedom and responsibility you offer your child, giving them as much help as they need to handle each level until they master it comfortably. Each section covers a number of years; children in the lowest ages of that range are just beginning to handle the listed items.
Remember! This note is repeated from the top of the page, but it bears repeating. These lists focus on your child’s span of control, rather than on tasks you want them to do. There’s a reason for that. When you focus on a list of tasks your child “should” do, you end up creating power struggles. “By now you should be able to clean up your own toys!” If, instead, you focus on helping your child take charge of his life, and support him as necessary to learn each new skill, your child wants to step into each new responsibility. Instead of your “holding him responsible,” he becomes motivated to take responsibility for himself. It’s a subtle shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Responsibilities Toddlers can be in charge of:
- Their own bodies, within the limits of safety and decency.
- Cleaning up their own messes. (“That’s ok. Get the paper towels off the counter and let’s clean that milk up. We always clean up our own messes.”)
- What to wear (within the limits of appropriate season, safety, and decency.)
- Amount of food to eat (You provide the selection. They decide how much.)
- Getting the food into their mouths. (Unless they ask for your help.)
- What book to read, even if you’re reading to them.
- What toys to play with.
- What toys to share (others get put away before friends arrive)
- When to use the potty. (You offer: “Do you need to use the potty before we leave the house?” But they need to check in with their own body and get to know its signals. Unless you want to be in charge of their toileting for years to come?)
Responsibilities Preschoolers (3-5) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
- Their own clothes (Choosing them, within your parameters. Maintaining them, by keeping them in reasonably neat piles by category.)
- Their own rooms (within reasonable neatness parameters. They decide what they want on the walls, within reasonable limits. Parents will need to help them organize their stuff and work with them to clean up.)
- How much to eat.
- What to eat (within appropriate nutritional guidelines. This only works if you limit accessibility of junk food. It does mean you have to decide what to do when they don’t like what you’ve fixed for dinner. In our house, they can get a yogurt if they want. Yogurts rarely win out.)
- Who to play with and when.
- Whether to attend social events to which she is invited (excluding mandatory family events.)
- Who is allowed in his room.
Responsibilities School-Age Children (6 to 9) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
- How to wear their hair (within appropriate grooming standards).
- Clearing their place from the table.
- Simple chores around the house.
- How to spend their allowance.
- Completing their homework.
- Getting their school backpack ready the night before.
- How to spend their time (after basic responsibilities like homework are accomplished.)
- Whether to play an instrument or take a class.
- What sport or physical activity to engage in (Given the research on this, physical activity in our house is non-negotiable, but they get to choose the type.)
- Fixing simple food for themselves for snacks and lunch.
- Help make the family contributions for the class bake sale and other events.
Responsibilities Preteens & Tweens (10-12) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
- Packing their school lunch.
- Self-grooming: nails, hair, etc.
- Walk with a friend from one point to another within the neighborhood as long as a parent always knows where they are. (This is the first reason that a child needs a cell phone.)
- Stay alone in the house, with certain rules about who can be with them.
Responsibilities Early Adolescents (13-15) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
- Get themselves up in the morning (you may need to be the backup plan.)
- Do their own laundry (eliminates you feeling like the maid when they suddenly need a certain item.)
- Temporary changes in appearance (i.e., permanent tattoos are out in my family till they’re eighteen, but temporary ones are their choice. Piercings are discussed on an as-requested basis, and are discouraged because of the risk of infection and permanent scarring.)
- Ride the bus and subway.
- Go to movies with friends.
- Earn spending money by babysitting or other jobs.
- Budget their own spending.