Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

A Blueprint for Teaching Children Responsibility

January 25, 1999

Each child is an individual. There is no "cookie cutter" formula that works for every child. Children come into this world with their own unique genetic makeup, temperament, personality and challenges. Each child learns differently and has particular needs. Successful parenting requires enough time, energy, structure and close attention to know each child as an individual. Here are a few pointers for teaching your child responsibility.

1. Draw on your bank account of love. Build on the attachment bond gained through meeting their needs. Then don't be afraid to be strong when there are problems. Sometimes it is unpleasant. Don't be afraid of their displeasure or rejection. Remember it is only temporary.

2. Be a good example. Work has meaning and rewards. Talk about the excitement and challenge of your own work and point out the work you do for the family. Children need to see their parents' work as a contribution to family life, not as a burden or a source of isolation and distance.

3. Give them responsibilities to teach them responsibility. Teach them while they are young. Be sure to give them tasks that are appropriate for their age and development.

4. Teach them basic principles. Explain the purpose and meaning of why certain activities are important. Take time to reason with them. Listen to them. Be clear about standards of responsible behavior, i.e., alcohol and drug use, sexual behavior, automobile use, respect for the law and control of temper.

5. Teach them needed skills. This takes gentleness, energy, time and commitment. Work along side of them. Teach them your standards and help them to take pride in their work. Make family fun a part of their reward. "When the job is finished, we will get to do . . . "

6. Minimize conflict. Mistakes should be treated as learning experiences. Some mistakes should be made while children are in the home. Allow for freedom of decision-making. Encourage and support them. Help them set goals and evaluate their own behavior.

Pick your battles. Help them have good memories of childhood. Don't go overboard on teaching responsibility at the expense of your relationship with them. Children need balanced lives with time for play, relaxation, friendships and recreation.

7. Hold children accountable for quality and completion of work. This will take follow through and consequences. The rules and consequences need to be discussed and clearly understood. Consequences need to be applied consistently in a matter-of-fact fashion. Positive reinforcement such as approval, praise, recognition, privileges and material rewards help create work habits.

Work comes before play. There are many diversions and entertainments that can interfere with chores and homework. Watch out for slippery kids. Stay with it. Split up responsibilities so children can be held accountable individually for their actions.

8. Encourage interests and activities. Give them opportunities to develop work habits that develop talents and skill-building activities such as music, art, sports, drama and other forms of competence. Children make sacrifices and learn self-discipline in order to meet their obligations to the team, teacher or group. Likewise, participation with youth groups such as Boys Scouts, 4-H, FFA, church groups, etc., helps build responsibility and leadership.

9. Be an advocate with the school to insure successful experiences. Be aware of your child’s homework and level of accomplishment. Give constructive help early so he or she will not fall behind.

10. Don't over commit or over schedule them. They need time to be responsible in the home. They need to be responsible for things other than what is in their own self-interest. Teach cooperation and working for the good of the group while they are young. After about age 14, they will be caught up in their own activities. At that point, they need to take more and more responsibility for themselves.

12. Teach them the value of money. Children need to know how much work is involved in making money. Don't give them too much. Let them work for perks and extras and share in purchasing items they really want. Help them see the difference between needs and wants.

Let them share in gift giving in the family with their own resources. They need to learn the principle of sacrifice and delayed gratification. An allowance can be an effective tool for helping children learn to manage money. Competitive employment has its own discipline and requirements for responsibility. It also provides income that they can budget and provide for their own needs and wants.

13. Teach them respect for property. They need to return what they borrow, take responsibility for any damage on items being returned or for any losses. They need to ask permission before using something that isn't theirs.

14. Lessen demands with older teens. Be a consultant. Keep an open line of communication. Avoid conflict about rooms and chores in the home. Pick up the slack for them. Their basic work habits and the standards they will choose will be a lot closer to your standards once they have a home of their own.

15. Give them opportunities to serve others, especially the less fortunate, outside of the home. This will also let them gain a perspective on their own lives and the relative value of their blessings and privileges.

All these points shade into related topics such as teaching children to care about others, respect for authority, honest communications and self control. Parenting is the most complex and demanding responsibility adults have. If we do our part, we will raise the next generation of responsible young adults. They will be ready to take their places in life's ongoing drama.