Teaching our kids responsibility isn’t always an easy task. As my kids get older, I’ve realized more and more that having responsible kids doesn’t just come naturally. And it isn’t something that they just “pick up” either. Responsibility has to be taught.
More importantly than being taught, however, responsibility has to be practiced in order for kids to begin taking personal responsibility. You can’t just talk to kids about the concept of responsibility. Instead, you have teach them in practical ways that gradually give them more and more responsibility as they’re capable and ready.
If you’re looking for some practical ways to teach your children how to be responsible and to help them practice responsibility, here are some ideas.
These ideas can be adapted for kids at various stages. As kids grow and mature, the level of responsibility that you ask of them will grow as well.
Teach kids to clean up after themselves.
As a traditional school teacher in a second grade class before I was a homeschool mom, I was always surprised at the number of children who just didn’t clean up after themselves. Children would sharpen pencils and leave the pencil shavings that fell on the floor. They would finish lunch on the playground and leave their trash on the ground. They would crumble up papers they were finished with and leave the trash on top of their desks as they left for the day.
Teaching kids to clean up after themselves is an important step in teaching them to take responsibility. It’s not an easy thing to teach. And I’ll admit that my children still need some reminding now and then. But it’s important to teach kids from early on that they need to “clean up when you mess up.”
Even toddlers can begin to learn this. Help your child throw away his trash after lunch. Have him walk with you to the sink to put in the dirty plate. As your child heads into the preschool years, teach her to clean up the toys she’s played with before she leaves the room. Teach her how to clean off her place at the table after meals.
With your older elementary aged child, you can teach him to wash any dishes he’s used to make a snack. You can have him clean up and put away his school things after he’s finished with his school work for the day.
Teaching kids to clean up after themselves is a first step in teaching personal responsibility. It’s sending the message that the child is responsible for the things that he or she does. And that responsibility extends to cleaning up when messes are made.
Emphasize responsibilities within the family.
As kids grow up, they need to see that they have responsibilities within the family structure.
If you have multiple children, have older children occasionally take responsibility for helping a younger one. Our children always knew that if they- the sibling group- were somewhere without us- staying with friends or at a church drop off program for instance- they each had a responsibility to “watch out” for each other. In other words, if your sister falls down and gets hurt, you, as her brother, should be there to help care for and comfort her because we’re a family, and we have a responsibility to care fore each other.
Another way to emphasize this family responsibility- especially as kids get older- is to make each child responsible for a job in the family. Assign laundry to one or two children. And really make them responsible for it. They’ll begin to see that if they don’t fulfill their responsibility, the whole family suffers.
They’ll understand that their role and responsibility in the family is important. And they’ll see that the way they handle responsibility can affect others- for good…or for bad.
Allow them to be responsible for a pet.
I know. I know. You may roll your eyes and shake your head because you really don’t want a pet and you definitely don’t want a pet that becomes more of a hassle for you when kids don’t do their jobs. Sometimes getting a pet isn’t a feasible option. But, if you can do it- and not lose your sanity- a pet really does help to develop responsibility in your children.
Often this attempt at teaching responsibility fails because we try it when kids are too young. A five-year-old probably isn’t going to reliably keep up with feeding the dog no matter how hard he tries. But it is reasonable to get a dog for your middle schooler and expect him to be able to walk, feed, and water it with only a few reminders.
In our family, we assign pet jobs just as we do other chores. One child is always responsible for the cat. When it comes to the hamster, our three girls- who were the ones who begged for said hamster- have divided the chores of water bottle, litter changing, and checking on food. Two children rotate walking the dog. And one has a personal beta fish that she totally cares for.
Allowing kids to have a pet and requiring them to take responsibility for it can teach them that, occasionally, they need to take responsibility for something or someone outside of themselves. If you wait until kids really are old enough to take on this responsibility, pet ownership can be a great practical way for kids to practice taking responsibility.
Hold kids accountable for their actions.
This one isn’t easy, friends. I know that, as a mom, I just get tired sometimes. And when I see a child who is watching a television show when I really know she should be working on schoolwork, it’s so easy to just overlook it and not deal with it.
And when I walk by the living room where a particular child should have cleaned up the game she was playing with, and yet the game is still spread out on the floor, it’s easy to just keep walking because I’m too tired to stop and deal with her.
But holding kids responsible for their actions is a crucial way to teach them responsibility.
If I overlook the child watching television instead of completing schoolwork, then she isn’t going to learn that she’s always responsible to complete work before leisure time. And if I walk by the mess in the living room and don’t hold that child accountable, she’s not going to learn to take responsibility to clean up after herself.
I read a quote in a book early in my homeschooling journey, and it’s always stuck with me. “Don’t expect what you don’t inspect.”
I get that it’s so easy to overlook things and not hold kids accountable in the midst of the busyness and exhaustion of your days. But holding kids accountable for their actions forces them to take responsibility for what they did or did not do.
Let kids experience natural consequences.
This can be a hard one, ya’ll. As parents we don’t enjoy watching our children suffer. And it’s easy to step in and fix things so that kids never have to experience any negative consequences. But erasing those natural consequences prevents kids from learning responsibility.
When my kids were younger, a big problem developed every time we would get in the car to go somewhere. I’d struggle to get the toddler and preschooler in the car and buckled into car seats, climb into my seat to go, only to have one of my older kids stop me because he or she had forgotten something they really, really, really wanted to take.
This was a problem because it usually meant me getting out of the car, unlocking the door, walking inside with the child, waiting while the child found the item, locking the door back, and waiting while the child got back into the car and got buckled. This took forever, ya’ll! We were late to everything.
I made a new rule. I would ask everyone inside if they each had everything they wanted to take. After that reminder, we would get into the car. If, at that point, one of the older kids decided they had forgotten something, we would not go back for it. A few days passed, and all was well. The kids were remembering better with the threat of not getting to take the things they wanted in the car.
Until…we headed to the museum for a field trip one day. My son stopped me as I started to get in after buckling up the little ones. He hadn’t brought out a favorite toy he wanted to take in the car. I told him we weren’t going back in to get it. Weeping and wailing ensued. It would’ve been so much easier to go in and get the toy, ya’ll. And my mama heart hurt for him. He was genuinely sad. But I stuck it out.
And, guess what? we rarely ever had that problem again. Because he had to face the consequences of his forgetfulness, he – and the other kids as well- didn’t often forget things to take in the car. That one incident of having to face a consequence helped my son to understand that it’s important to take responsibility to get all of your things to the car when you’re headed out.
Of course, allowing kids to face consequences can change as kids grow and mature. I wouldn’t hold a three-year-old responsible for getting all of her things in the car. But as kids become more and more capable, they can be held responsible for more and be allowed to face consequences for being irresponsible.
Responsibility must be “taught, not caught,” as the traditional saying goes. Use some of these practical ideas to help your kids learn to be responsible.
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