Help your kids develop a sense of personal responsibility.
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True story: back in my early 20s I thought kids’ behavior could be entirely controlled by parents.
OK, so maybe I wasn’t quite that clueless, but not far from it…
Why are kids so noisy in stores?, I would think. Why would any parent allow their child to have a messy room? Why don’t parents just make their kids eat healthy food?
On and on the delusions went.
Of course, years later I became a parent and learned the truth: kids have minds of their own.
And while technically, yes, parents can coerce their children to be obedient and do almost anything, obedience doesn’t always come with a sense of responsibility.
- Obedient kids do what their parents want them to do, not what they internally feel led to do.
- Responsible kids grow into young adults who take on tasks without being asked and need little supervision, instruction or guidance.
So how can parents raise kids who have a sense of responsibility? And who from there develop independence and demonstrate maturity?
Here’s one thing I know for sure: like with most of parenting, we can’t expect perfection in an instant when it comes to responsibility. Raising responsible kids takes time. It’s a process that develops slowly over many years and requires guidance, patience, and persistence.
We don’t expect our four-year-old to know he needs to bathe every day. Just like we can’t expect our ten-year-old to perfectly manage their time or always remember to turn in their math homework on Monday.
Kids need coaching and guidance to develop a sense of personal responsibility. Parents can support their kids by creating a culture of responsibility at home that incrementally increases as children grow and mature. Being an independent, responsible member of the family becomes the norm, not the exception, and that norm will stay with kids as they head out into the world as adults.
You may saying: OK, I’m willing to get patient and work at it. But how can I get started? What exactly should I do?
Here are seven ways parents can help raise responsible kids:
Nurture their innate willingness to help
Thankfully, toddlers and preschoolers love responsibility. They love the feeling of being helpers and “grown-up”. The more we can nurture this quality in our young kids the more they will continue to seek out responsibility as they mature.
This means letting your 3-year-old “fold the laundry” even if it adds 10 minutes to your chore. Or letting your five-year-old wash the windows – streaks and all.
The idea here is to encourage the initiative and responsibility kids take on – and not to worry about the outcome. Mastery of certain tasks will come in time. Patience is key – and encouragement.
Everyone in the family does chores
Assigning chores to everyone in the family, including kids, is an extension of building a culture where kids can demonstrate and practice responsibility.
Once kids are old enough to help maintain the household – even in small ways like feeding the cat or sweeping the floor – sit down as a family and make a list of which chores each member of the family is responsible for and when.
For more information about how to get your kids started on chores, see my book: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Started on Kids Chores:
Routines are a child’s best friend (and a parent’s)
If you’ve lived most of your life routine-free, parenthood is the time to switch gears and embrace it. Routines provide structure and clues for kids so they know what needs to get done when.
Having a routine – even a somewhat loose one – means more opportunity for kids to independently take on tasks and responsibility. If your child normally eats breakfast after waking up, then feeds the cat, and then gets dressed, they will eventually know what to do without you having to tell them (read: less nagging!).
Help kids problem-solve
Life would be so easy if kids already knew how to do everything. But kids are still learning and growing and making mistakes. We can help them learn from their mistakes by getting them involved in solutions:
- “What do you think you could do differently next time to remember to bring your snow pants home from school?”
- “How could you structure your day differently to ensure you get your vocabulary homework done on time AND get to bed at a decent hour?”
Involving kids in coming up with the solution caters to their desire to feel grown-up and mature and sends the message that we feel they are capable of being responsible (with a little nudge from us). It also encourages them to think for themselves and begin to consider what the best solution is, rather than just taking actions because they’re obedient to their parents.
Model your own definition of responsibility
There’s really no point in trying to teach kids to be responsible if we aren’t acting responsibly, ourselves. Kids learn by modeling behavior – forget “do as I say, not as I do.”
If you want to raise kids who tell the truth, tell the truth to your kids. If you want to raise kids who manage time wisely, manage your own time wisely.
Kids may not always mimic what we do (at least not right away). But research shows that parents modeling appropriate behavior can be far more effective than telling children what to do.
On the other hand, if keeping a room tidy isn’t that important to you, no problem. Just don’t expect more from your kids than you expect from yourself. There are plenty of other things to focus on in developing your kids’ sense of responsibility.
Get out of the way
Sometimes parents are their own worst enemy. Instead of having kids clean their own room, we do it for them. And make their lunch, and do their laundry, and we drive to school to hand over forgotten homework.
Helping out other family members every now and then demonstrates our love and support of each other. But the default family rule should be that everyone is responsible for their own chores, responsibilities, and possessions.
Progress over perfection
Your daughter may never clean her bedroom to your standards, and your son might continue to struggle with time management throughout high school and college.
What’s most important is our encouragement and support more than the achieved goal. Letting our kids know that we believe in them while we continue to let them take the reigns of independence in their hands will give them the encouragement to keep improving themselves and demonstrate responsibility.