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 where adults don’t shrug off their responsibilities as citizens. As my son said, surveying the littered park when he was three, “Don’t grownups 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?
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.
Children need to see themselves as response-able — powerful and able to respond to what needs to be done. They need this for their self-esteem, for their lives to have meaning, and also so they’ll learn to handle themselves responsibly in the world.
The bottom line is that kids will be responsible to the degree that we support them to be. Here, 14 everyday strategies guaranteed to increase your kids’ “response-ability” quotient.
- Teach 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 kids learn early that “Everyone is responsible for their own messes,” they will not only be easier for you to live with, they will be better citizens of the world.
- Kids need an opportunity to contribute to the common good.
All children contribute to the rest of us in some way, regularly. Find that way and comment on it, even if it is just noticing when she is kind to her little brother or that the rest of the family enjoys 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.
- 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 when he’s little. 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.
- 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 do 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.
- 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, ask her what she can do to make things better between them. Read him a story? Help him with his chore of setting the table? Give 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.
- Hold your kids accountable for damaged goods.
If kids help pay for lost library books and cell phones, windows broken by their baseball, or tools they’ve left out to rust from their own savings, the chances of a repeat infraction are slim.
- 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 herself, whether it requires offering an apology or making amends in a more concrete way.
- Model responsibility and accountability.
“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?
- 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, teach him to stop anytime he leaves somewhere — his friend’s house, school, soccer practice — and count off everything he needs to take home.
- Teach your kids 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.
- 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.
- Create a No-Blame Household.
We all, automatically, want to blame someone when things go wrong. As if fixing blame prevents a recurrence of the problem, or absolves 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.
- 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.