Every parent’s dream is to bring up responsible children. And we all want to live in a world where others have been raised to be responsible, a world where adults don’t shrug off their responsibilities as citizens. So how do you raise your 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 do not 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 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 is a subtle shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.
- CLEAN UP YOUR MESS
Raise your child with the expectation that we always clean up our own messes. Begin by helping your child, until she learns it. She will 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 table 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 will not 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, wi’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. OPPORTUNITY
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 is 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 cannot expect them to develop a helpful attitude overnight. It helps to steadily increase responsibility in age appropriate ways. Invite toddlers to put mats 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.
- DON’T FORCE
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 labor, 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 is not getting this job done, it is 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 is 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.
- GIVE THEM A CHANCE
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 are working with your child to help him discover the satisfaction of contribution. That is more important than having the job done quickly or perfectly. Notice that you are also bonding, which is what motivates kids to keep contributing.
- LET THEM THINK
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 is 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.
- 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.
- INTERACTION WITH OTHERS
When your daughter hurts her little brother’s feelings, don’t force her to apologize. She won’t mean it, and it will not 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 will 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 are not forcing, she is able to choose to make the repair, which makes it feel good, and makes her more likely to repeat it.
- GIVE SUPPORT
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.
- TAKE TIME TO BAIL THEM OUT
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 does not 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.
- BE AN EXAMPLE
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 cannot 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?
- NEVER CALL THEM “IRRESPONSIBLE”
Never label your child as “Irresponsible,” because the way you see your 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.
- DON’T BLAME
We all, automatically, want to blame someone when things go wrong. It is 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 is the number one reason kids lie to their parents. Worse yet, when we blame them, kids find all kinds of reasons it was not really their fault, at least in their own minds, so they are 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 cannot 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 is good practice to overstate your responsibility – without beating yourself up. Then, just accept the situation. You can always come up with better solutions from a state of acceptance than a state of blame.
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.