Teaching children responsibility is an ongoing process that continues throughout childhood, adolescence, and even into adulthood. Parents’ parenting style plays a big role in children’s ability to take responsibility for their actions. A parent who employs a helicopter kind of parenting teaches the opposite of responsibility because it involves shadowing the child, always there directing their behavior, even doing their homework and school projects. Ultimately, the child grows up to be that adult who blames others for every problem. These kinds of adults usually have trouble apologizing, maintaining healthy friendships, and building a successful career.
Other parents try and find a balance between a hands-off approach and enforcing limits to raise responsible adults. Here, parents nurture and offer guidance, providing opportunities for children to make choices. And whatever the outcome of those choices, they let their children face the consequences. This teaches them that choices have consequences that should be shouldered by those who made those choices. This is sometimes called passive or positive parenting. (link needed here)
In reality, a mixture of the two styles, moving away from helicopter to passive as your child gets older, is a natural way to prepare them for adult life. We look more closely at the steps to independence here.
What Does Responsibility in Children Look Like?
By knowing what responsibility looks like in children, you’ll be able to spot it in your child. If nothing else, at least you get to know that your parenting style is working. Here are some ways in which responsibility manifests in children. What responsibility looks like will change as they get older. To a younger child, it will be packing their bag for school. For an older child being at home on their own for a week.
- They understand that they can’t always get what they want. By their nature, children are very tenacious and persistent when they desperately want something. You either give them what they want, or they throw a long tantrum. Even though you wish always to indulge them, the reality of life is that nobody can always get what they want. This is a fact you may have tried to establish early on as a parent. It is a good sign when your child understands these limitations and shows them how they react when they don’t get their way. Older teenagers sometimes struggle to understand why people outside their family do not give them what they want. For example, that university place or job. If they have grown up to feel entitled, they are often not ready for the adult world’s ups and downs.
- They get on without threats or rewards. Many children don’t cooperate unless threats or gifts are involved, which is generally not a good strategy. It is a sign of responsibility if your child can get on without getting incentives. Usually, it’s their sense of fairness and responsibility that encourages such cooperation. As children get above about 6 or 7, try to get away from sticker charts and rewards and explain that sometimes things just need to be done. As part of a family unit, we should look to help out and revise for tests to help ourselves. I’m not particularly eager to link pocket money to chores or results. However, I strongly believe in rewarding effort. If there is a big test, and my child has worked hard for it, it has to be a treat that evening. Especially before they get the result so that they can see that it is the effort that is valued.
- They don’t wait to be told to do chores at home. With so many fun gadgets available, children easily get carried away. They can spend hours glued to a screen playing video games or watching TV, forgetting that they have household chores to do. Some children are even less inclined to do chores even when they are reminded. It simply shows a sense of duty and responsibility if your child does their chores without being told. Again praise and expressing this is the right thing to do reinforces their pride and understanding in their actions. We look at age-appropriate chores here.
- They expect consequences for their actions. If you’re the kind of parent who makes their expectations and consequences clear and your child comes to expect them, then that’s a sign of responsibility. Your child understands that they bear the consequences of their actions. They do what’s expected of them with very little fuss. As they get older and more independent, they can apply this to their actions, making lives ultimately less stressful and happier.
- They are not scared to make mistakes. Positive parenting gives room for children to make mistakes and learn from the experience. Parents provide support and guidance, helping their children develop resilience and handle feelings like sadness and anger. This fosters a can-do attitude in your child, which is a sign of responsibility.
Signs You Might Be Raising an Irresponsible Child
As a parent, you may be promoting irresponsibility in your child without knowing it. You’re too close to the situation, so it seems like you’re only doing what a normal parent should do for their child. Usually, realization comes to you a little late, when your child is already manifesting some of the traits you enabled. You are their biggest role model so you need to practice what you preach. Fortunately, even then, responsibility can be taught through deliberate action. Below are some parenting techniques that show you might not be teaching your child responsibility.
- You never tell them no. Every parent loves their children and wants what’s best for them. Parents want their children to be happy and comfortable. This often prompts many parents to say yes where no would’ve been a teachable moment and, therefore, a better long-term strategy. Parents sometimes go this way to avoid dealing with a tantrum. But this doesn’t teach the child one vital real-world lesson: things will not always go your way, and you have to deal with the disappointment that comes with it.
- You never encourage them to help others. Children, especially toddlers, are usually preoccupied with their own needs. As they grow, they begin to understand that other people have needs and feelings. This part of your child needs nurturing and encouragement to flourish. Adopting a parenting style where you’re all about their needs only encourages them to think about themself and no one else. The result will be an adult who’s too caught up in themself to see anything else.
- You try to protect them from failure. One of the constant things about life is that everybody will fail at something big or small as they go through life. The ability to come back from it and go again is something to be nurtured right from childhood. This means that you have to leave your child open to failure from time to time, a way for them to learn how to deal with the disappointment that comes with it. Additionally, they also become resilient and learn how to lose with grace. This is one of the main advantages of extra-curricular activities.
- You let them off the hook easily. Usually, parents have expectations and boundaries set for their children, from household chores to acceptable behavior. Sure enough, children will push those boundaries from time to time, trying to test their limits. But it is the parents’ job to reinforce those boundaries and hold their children responsible. If you let your child easily wiggle out of doing the dishes and even go-ahead to do it yourself because you don’t want conflict, you may raise a child who might grow too dependent on you and others around them.
How to Raise a Responsible Child
As explained in the National Research Council report, individuals learn by actively encountering events, objects, actions, and concepts in their environments. This means that you are in a position to influence your child by teaching them through modeling (link here to model the person you want). This will serve your child well later in life. “Ingraining responsibility in children is not a trick but is simply teaching them life skills,” says Dr. Karen Ruskin, author of The 9 Key Techniques for Raising Respectful Children Who Make Responsible Choices. “Kids who do not have responsibilities feel entitled and think the world will always do for them.” Below are some tips on how to teach responsibility to your child.
- Start early. Most of the values you want your child to embody starts in childhood. Start by helping your child clean up while they learn from you. Then when it’s age-appropriate, let the child help out while you do the heavy lifting. This might sometimes feel insignificant, and you might want just to do it yourself. There will always be small chores that you can share with your child in a friendly way. For example, you can help clean your child’s spilled milk by bringing two towels and handing him or her one. Keep your tone light and friendly so your child doesn’t get defensive. We give appropriate ages for chores here.
- Be clear and consistent with your expectations. Your child needs to know what’s within the scope of acceptable behavior and the things you expect them to do. Without this sort of guidance, children just do whatever they see fit. Let them know that they have to pick up their toys, put their bicycle inside, not talk while they’re eating, make their beds, keep their room tidy, etc. Also, when you put a rule in place, try to stick with it. For example, we discuss curfews and actually giving them the tools to be responsible at night here.
- Instead of punishment, ask them to repair. When your child does something wrong, you might feel the need to do something that lets them know of their wrongdoing. And the punishment for wrongdoing can be counterproductive because it doesn’t always repair the wrong. For example, if your child hits their sibling, ask them to apologize instead of yelling or telling them off. Don’t force the apology if tempers are high. Let the child calm down, then ask him or her what they can do to make their sibling feel better.
- Use reward and praise wisely. Promising your child a reward to get him or her to tidy their bedroom can feel like a win-win, but it’s not. Your child needs to understand that they need to do stuff because those things need to be done. If you’re always giving or promising him or her a reward, they’ll come to expect it before doing anything. This means when they get to adulthood, they can’t see the need to do things.
- Allow natural consequences. When your child misbehaves or makes a mistake, and you can see that natural consequences would follow, let him or her experience it. For example, your child refuses to properly pack their bag and therefore gets told off for forgetting their homework. Rather than drive it in, let them face the consequences, even if it is upsetting. Shielding them teaches that someone will always be there to fix things when they screw up.
Final Thoughts on How to Teach Your Child Responsibility
Importantly, there’s a difference between obedience and responsibility, and parents can easily mistake the two. Also, as in all parenting, it is important that both parents have the same expectations as what ‘good looks like’. This is difficult if they are living in different households, and we have advice on co-parenting here. Responsibility might be better described as giving your child ownership of a task and allowing them space to take some initiative and do it as they see fit. In contrast, obedience is giving your child ownership of a task and always expecting to control precisely how, when, and where they do it. The outcome between giving responsibility and demanding obedience usually differs. The former makes your child feel pride and accomplishment at the end of a task, while the latter breeds displeasure and even rebellion in some cases.