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Instill the Value of Personal Responsibility

How To Help Your Child Develop Personal Responsibility

A close friend and mother of four children recently expressed concern for her oldest son's lack of responsibility. She also chatted about how frequently her 10-year-old daughter loses her gloves or never remembers to turn off her television before leaving the house. She reflected on how her 14-year-old twin sons walk out the door right past their backpacks three mornings out of five.

As the conversation progressed past musing about how forgetful the very same children who can recite every line from their favorite cartoon seem to be when they need to be responsible about bringing home their study guides, the question of their level of responsibility for themselves, their possessions and actions came under fire.

Her wondering what she failed to teach her children and how to now try to instill personal responsibility to a child wavering on the brink of adulthood spawned a series of questions and concerns common to numerous parents. Compounding her concern was the fear that her children would mature without ever developing the sense of personal responsibility that is so necessary as an adult.

"My son would lose his head if it wasn't attached! My daughter persistently forgets to bring her homework home! I can't find my sneakers!" are phrases heard daily in our households. Adding to the frustration of constantly having to find their child's lost possessions, parents worry about their child's ability to demonstrate responsibility for their personal items and behavior.

Because responsibility is typically not an inherent trait, many children struggle to understand the far-reaching effects of being responsible – or irresponsible. Helping a child develop his or her personal responsibility is a lesson that requires time and patience. It also requires parents who understand how their children process responsibility's role in their life.

The Big Bag Theory

"Once a week, I take everything that's left lying out and toss it into a giant garbage bag," says Kim Woodbury of Springfield, Ill. "Whether it's a math book, borrowed video game or piece of hockey equipment, if it's not put where it's supposed to be, it's gone!" While this option certainly tackles the problem of parents tripping over items or having to partake in the search for the missing baseball mitt, some would argue it doesn't always instill a strong sense of responsibility.

Although collecting the items and temporarily stashing them away can provide some relief, ironically this option can backfire. Some children may eventually learn to be more responsible with their toys or possessions. However, in most cases a child who is irresponsible with his possessions begins to apply the principle that sooner or later his things will be scooped up by a parent. This child doesn't actually learn to be responsible, because this process may teach him that someone else will ultimately take responsibility for his items and possessions that are misplaced or treated carelessly.

While parents such as Woodbury do eliminate clutter, their kids may still need some help learning how to be responsible enough to prevent the clutter in the future. Adding some additional supportive measures that complement this approach can offer families further tools in the search to teach responsibility.

It's Never too Late

What's a parent to do if their 10-year-old has no inclination for keeping track of his possessions or their teen is overwhelmingly irresponsible? "The first step is not giving up," says Life Coach and Professional Organizer Lori Schmidt of Arlington, Mass. "Everyone has the ability and potential to enhance their level of responsibility; you just have to know where to begin."

Professionals like Schmidt recommend parents begin with assessing what specific areas their children need help with. "For some children, it's actually working on their memory skills more than responsibility," she says. "For others, it's restructuring their attitude." A child who appears to have a lazy approach toward the responsibility of his belongings may in fact feel overwhelmed about how to be responsible. Forgetfulness or a feeling of being overwhelmed can easily be perceived as a lack of responsibility. Identifying where to begin helps everyone start the process of being more responsible.

If memory is the issue, Schmidt recommends reinforcing responsibility with subtle reminders and clues. She offers options such as placing an "out the door" checklist on the refrigerator that kids can refer to before leaving for school to reduce the chances of leaving home without a lunch. You can also opt for tacking a bulletin board up in his room to create a central location for reminders or notes and a calendar to chart his responsible progress. Parents can also subtly guide children to be responsible by modeling responsibility and including children in tasks that require a responsible orientation.

Reactions to Responsibility

Elizabeth Gibson of Medford, N.Y., wishes her two children would realize the importance of taking responsibility for their actions. "They are always stunned if a privilege is revoked when they fail to complete their designated household tasks," she says. Gibson's quest to instill a responsible attitude in her children for their actions can be achieved by implementing a few techniques.

"In this instance parents can clearly communicate the potential consequences," says Schmidt. "A child will have all the information pertinent to his demonstration of responsibility before losing a privilege.

Another option is reverting back to the idea of a checklist. Noting that watching television can only be accomplished after his room is thoroughly cleaned and dusted or that playing video games is a luxury afforded to those who set the table and take out the trash helps children learn how to be responsible as well as avoid losing privileges."

Praising children for their demonstration of responsibility when they take it upon themselves to feed the dog or water the plants further advances your mission. Your child will appreciate the recognition and work to receive additional praise for asserting his responsible attitude.

The Choice

Alan Cummings, Ph.D., director and owner of an early childhood development center in Louisville, Ky., recommends parents offer children choices as a tool to teach responsibility. "Suggesting that 'there may be a better choice ' or asking 'please make another decision' reinforces the responsible behavior we're trying to instill," he says. When a child at Cummings' facility doesn't want to accept the responsibility or consequences for their behavior, he and his staff redirect the child's attention to the philosophy and principles of the center. "Let's see if we can figure out what would have been a better choice" is asked of a child who takes a toy away from another or fails to help clean up.

"A child teetering on the verge of 'choosing' unwisely is gently reminded, 'Should we think about the decision to do that?'" says Bonnie Cummings, Alan's wife and business partner. A former elementary school teacher, Bonnie has seen the difference that teaching children to choose responsibly makes. "When the kids feel they have some control and a say in their choices, they are more inclined to make a responsible decision," she says.

Both Schmidt and the Cummingses agree that while no child is past the point of learning to be responsible, starting as early as possible is beneficial for everyone. Although options that reinforce responsibility early are preferred by experts and parents alike, establishing personal responsibility in children of all ages can be accomplished by setting examples and reinforcing your expectations.

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