Raising a responsible child

February 29, 2012 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

The text came within 60 seconds after the bus pulled away from the curb.

“I left my math homework on dining room table. Can you bring it to school?”

It was the fourth time in three weeks my 7th grader had forgotten something at home that absolutely had to be delivered to school or she would be in huge trouble.

I didn’t like that she would be reprimanded by a teacher and lose points for an assignment she had put a lot of time into the night before. But I had told her after the last request that I was discontinuing my shuttle service; she was responsible for making sure she had everything she needed before leaving the house in the morning. Accepting the consequences for forgotten homework was part of the learning process, and she needed to be held accountable.

A text message back to her let her know that she would have to turn in a late assignment and reminded her of our conversation about responsibility. She wasn’t happy, but that, too, was part of the learning process.

Teaching responsibility can be tough. We don’t like when our children are sad or upset or any of the other negative emotions that come with learning a hard lesson. But by not teaching them, we are actually doing them a disservice. When they are in the workplace, a call to the boss from mom to explain a missed deadline is not acceptable, and a trip across three state lines to deliver a work project forgotten at home isn’t feasible.

It’s never to early – or late – to begin teaching responsibility. Where do you begin?

Start now.

If your child missed the lesson in pick-up-your-toys-after-you-play because it was easier to pick them up yourself than argue, use a sleepover with friends as a teachable moment. “You and your friends are responsible for picking up the basement in the morning. If your friends don’t help before they go home, you’ll have to do it yourself.” And stick to it -don’t pick up the basement because your child is too tired from staying up till 3 in the morning. Establish real consequences for failure to complete a responsibility, such as they’re not allowed to go to the next sleepover.

Involve them in the process.

Children can be involved in setting responsibilities. Whether it’s discussing chores or homework, allow your child to have a say in determining responsibilities and consequences.

For example, your child says she’s too busy during the week with homework and sports practice to empty the dishwasher (her responsibility). Brainstorm possible solutions together, such as taking turns with a sibling, or determine a different task she can do on weekends. Agree on a solution, and set a date to follow up to see if the solution is working. Of course, you also need to make your child accountable (see below). In this way, your child voices an opinion (which validates ideas and feelings), accepts responsibility for a household chore (vacuuming on weekends for example) and acknowledges there will be consequences if she doesn’t complete her responsibility.

Define responsibilities in words.

Describe clearly your expectations using the words “responsible” and “responsibility.” Responsibilities are commitments – something that you have to do or that is your job to do. For example, “It is your responsibility to put your breakfast dishes in the dishwasher” clearly does not mean it’s OK to leave them in the sink.

When your child completes a task, be sure to say, “I like that you took care of your responsibility,” or “I appreciate that you took care of your responsibility and put your breakfast dishes in the dishwasher.” When you identify something as a responsibility, your child becomes more conscious of it.

Be a role model.

Remember, responsibilities are commitments – something that you have to do or that is your job to do. Oftentimes, other people are depending on you to do what you said you would. If you tell your child you are going to do something, it is your responsibility to do it. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Your behavior with other people should be a model of meeting responsibilities.

Require accountability.

Consequences go along with responsibilities. Create a list of consequences (with your child’s input!) so your child knows what to expect if he doesn’t follow through on responsibilities. Consequences could be task-related – “You have additional chores because you didn’t clean your room” – or time related – “You can’t spend the night at your friend’s house because you didn’t complete your responsibility to clean up the basement after your last sleepover.” It’s important to follow through on consequences matter-of-factly – not with threats and yelling. Sometimes it’s helpful to write everything down, so there is no question about what was agreed upon.

You can also consider making a list of rewards. Rewards don’t have to be expensive – or involve money at all. It can be a visit to a favorite skate park or extra time with friends.

Coach, don’t criticize.

Criticism is the best way to make your child defensive and shut them down. If your child does a post-sleepover basement cleanup but doesn’t fold the blankets correctly, don’t criticize. Compliment the cleanup. You can show your child how to properly fold blankets another time.

Learning about and meeting responsibilities is one of the most important skills children can acquire at a young age. The best way for children to learn about responsibility is for you to explain it, model it and encourage it. It’s a life lesson that will serve them long after their days of emptying your dishwasher are done.


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