How to Raise Responsible Kids – Not Just Obedient Ones

Help your kids develop a sense of personal responsibility. 

Mother kissing baby while son also kisses baby.

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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 just about 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 kids demonstrating 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 at home that incrementally increases children’s responsibility as they 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 into the world as adults.

You may be thinking: OK, I’m willing to be 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 children the more they will continue to seek out responsibility as they mature.

This means letting your three-year-old “fold the laundry” or help pick up toys even if it adds ten minutes to your chore. Or letting your five-year-old wash the windows – streaks and all.

The idea 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 and teens, 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.

Interested in getting your kids started on chores? My four-lesson course will teach you how to get started, avoid nagging & power struggles, and keep your kids motivated. Click here or the image below to learn more.

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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 gets into the routine of eating breakfast after waking up, then feeding the cat, and then getting dressed, they will eventually know what to do without you having to tell them (read: less nagging!).

Do your kids need help remembering their routines? Click here to see my routine cards that serve as visual reminders for kids of all ages.

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. Asking them questions is a great way to get started:

  • “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 your vocabulary homework is done on time AND you get to bed at a decent hour?”

Involving kids in solutions caters to their desire to feel grown-up and mature and sends the message that we feel they’re 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 following directions because they’re being obedient to their parents.

See related: How to Teach Kids to Problem-Solve

Girl with umbrella and the quote "The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence." Denis Waitley

Model 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 responsible 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.

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 deliver their forgotten homework at school.

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.

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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.

Are you wondering when your child can begin doing certain tasks and chores on their own? Click here to sign up for my weekly emails and you’ll receive my Age-Appropriate Guide to Kids’ Independence as a free gift.

You may also like:

How to Raise Responsible Kids Who Want to Help

How to Stop Doing Everything for Your Kids and Teach Responsibility

Kind but Firm: How to Discipline Kids While Reaching Their Hearts at the Same Time

15 Life Skills Your Kids Will Need Before They Leave Home

6 Tips for Teaching Responsibility to Children: a Step-by-Step Guide

What to do next…

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3. Get your kids started on chores.

Learn how to get your child started on chores (& keep them motivated + avoid power struggles) by enrolling in my Get Your Kids Successfully Started on Chores course. Click here to learn more and sign-up.

4. Become a member of The Empowered Parents Collective.

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About Kerry Flatley

Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put these ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.