How to Raise a Responsible Child

Laura Markham's picture

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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, even to the point of -- as my three-year-old once said -- ignoring 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.

The bottom line is that kids will be responsible to the degree that we expect them to be. Here, ten everyday strategies guaranteed to increase your kids' "response-ability" quotient.

  1. Hold your child accountable for her own messes. Do it kindly, do it supportively, but do it, even when it's easier to do it yourself. (And it's almost always easier to do it yourself.) 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 all clean up our own things."

    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.

  2. 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 attend to and praise will grow.

    As your children get older, their contributions should increase appropriately, both within 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. Toddlers can put napkins on the table, three-year-olds can set places. Four-year-olds can match socks, and five-year-olds can begin to 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.

    Give as much structure, support, and hands-on help as you need to, and know that it will be much harder than doing it yourself, but make it clear that it is the child's responsibility to complete the task. Eventually, she will be doing it herself.

  3. 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.
  4. 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 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.
  5. 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." "Oh, oh. I accidentally doublebooked. I need to call right away and cancel this appointment." Keep your promises to your child. 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?
  6. Hold your kids accountable for damaged goods. If kids help pay for lost library books, 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.
  7. Don't rush to bail your child out of a difficult situation. Be available for problem-solving, and to insure that she doesn't just sidestep the difficulty, but let her handle the problem herself, whether it requires offering an apology or making amends in a more concrete way.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

Dr. Laura Markham