We all want to raise responsible children. And we all want to live in a world where others have been raised to be responsible, a world in which adults don’t shrug off their responsibilities as citizens. As my son once said, surveying the littered park when he was 3, “Don’t grown-ups know they have to clean up their own messes?”
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, that their lives make a positive contribution.
You don’t really need to teach kids to handle themselves responsibly in the world; you just need to teach them that they have the power to contribute in a positive way, 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 in being so. Here are 15 everyday strategies guaranteed to increase your kids’ “response-ability” quotient.
1. Raise your child with the expectation that we always clean up our own messes.
Begin by helping your child to be responsible until they learn how. They’ll learn how faster if you can be cheerful and kind about it, and remember not to worry about spilled milk. Encourage them to help by handing them 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 they don’t become defensive — they’ll want to help clean up and make things better. When your toddler spills her milk, say, “Oops, the milk spilled! That’s okay. 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 pick up our own stuff.” You will have to do this, in one form or another, until your child leaves home. But if your approach is positive and lighthearted, your child won’t get defensive and whine that you should do the cleaning up. And when kids hear the constant, friendly reminder that we must all clean up our messes, 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 they are kind to their sibling or that you enjoy how they are always singing. Whatever behaviors you acknowledge will grow. As your children get older, their contributions can increase appropriately, both within and outside of the household. Kids need to develop two kinds of responsibilities: their own self-care and contributing to the family’s 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 and ask 3-year-olds to set places. Your 4-year-old can match socks, and your 5-year-old can help groom the dog. A 6-year-old is ready to clear the table, a 7-year-old to water plants, and 8-year-olds can fold laundry. Again, notice that you’re inviting and empowering your child, not guilting and burdening them.
3. Remember that no kid in his right mind wants to do “chores.”
Unless you want your children to think of contributing to the family as drudgery, don’t “make” them do chores without you until those tasks are a regular part of your family routine and ones that they do not resist. Your goal isn’t getting this specific 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 your child requires, including sitting with them and helping for the first 30 times they do the task, if necessary. Know that it will be much harder than doing it yourself. Remind yourself that there’s joy in these tasks, so communicate that, along with the satisfaction of a job well done. Eventually, they will be doing these tasks by themselves. That day will come much faster if they enjoy them.
4. Always let a child “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 in doing so, they step into the responsibility of being “response-able.” So, instead of rushing through your list, reframe your goal. You’re working with your child to help them 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 of tasks, morning after morning, until they internalize it and begin managing their own morning routine.
6. Provide routines and structure.
Routine and structure 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 prepping for bedtime, putting away toys and getting ready in the morning. Then they develop successful study habits and grooming habits. Finally, they learn basic life skills through the repetition of household routines, such as doing laundry or making simple meals.
7. Teach your children to be responsible for their interactions with others by using repair instead of punishment.
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. First, 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, 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 always responsible for repairs when they do damage. But because you aren’t forcing the repair, she’s able to choose to make it herself, which makes it feel good. And that makes her more likely to repeat it.
What if your child resists repair? That comes from resentment, or what we might call “a chip on the shoulder.” Your child feels like the one who has been hurt or offended and thus won’t start the repair process because she feels like her actions were warranted — if not by what happened in this incident, then certainly by past grievances. That’s a bigger healing project that you’ll need to be involved in, so start today by building trust, listening to your child’s upsets and acknowledging those old feelings. This shows your child that you care, that they aren’t alone, and that they can feel those old emotions and move beyond them. At the same time that you’re supporting your child to heal their past unhappiness, insist that they repair current interactions.
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 children out of a difficult situation.
Be available to your children for problem-solving, helping them work through their feelings and fears, and to ensure that they don’t just sidestep the difficulty. But let them handle the problem themselves, 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 until we get to the car, but I don’t see a trash can, and we never litter.”
“This sign says parking is reserved for people with physical challenges, 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 they need for school or play that game with them on Saturday, why should they be responsible about keeping 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 them the skills they need to be responsible. If they always lose things, for instance, teach them to stop anytime they leave somewhere — a friend’s house, school, soccer practice — and check that they have everything they need 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 the time they enter 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 needs to get done. Write in baseball game, piano practice, an upcoming birthday party and all the steps of their science project: shop for materials, build the volcano, write and print out the description. Be sure to block out 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, writing out a schedule teaches them to manage their time and be responsible about their commitments.
13. 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 8-year-old to do tasks you wouldn’t normally expect of them (washing the car, weeding the garden), then encourage them to expand to odd jobs in the neighborhood (walk the neighbor’s dog or offer snow-shoveling services in the winter). Have them move on to mother’s helper/babysitting jobs when it’s age-appropriate, and finally, to take on after-school or summer jobs. Few settings teach as much about responsibility as the world of working for pay.
14. Create a no-blame household.
We all automatically want to blame someone when things go wrong. It’s as if fixing blame on someone 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 No. 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 be repeated.
Blame is the opposite of unconditional love. So, why do we do it? We do it to help us feel less out of control, and because we can’t bear the suspicion that we also played 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.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Aha! Parenting.