Encouraging responsibility in older children

Aug 5, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. ET

Imagine if you could teach your kids to do everything they're supposed to do without fighting, screaming, or talking back? Guess what? You can. It's called teaching them responsibility, and it's actually part of a parent's job description.

Child Pouring Milk
Early on, you're thrilled when your child can go the bathroom alone. It seems impossible that one day this child will be able to make her own grilled cheese sandwich in a frying pan.

It can take even the best parents by surprise. One day, you're reading bedtime stories and shopping for your child's clothes without asking her input, and the next, she's got an opinion she's all too happy to share with you. You realize that your baby is a full-blown person with thoughts and feelings all her own, and that she's capable of doing things you never dreamed possible.


Sometimes it's fear that makes parents reluctant to relinquish responsibility to their children. Maybe they won't need us; maybe they'll get hurt if they try something; maybe they'll fail. But maybe, by not allowing children to take on more responsibility, parents are creating something truly terrifying: young adults who actively shirk responsibility.

Responsibility doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You don't have to make your eight-year-old plan and prepare all her own meals starting tomorrow. Ease into the idea. Tell your child that if she sees that her favorite cereal is running low or gone, to add it to the shopping list. Or tell her to come up with an idea for one dinner a week--a main course, a vegetable, and a starch. You can try this together the first few weeks, and then give her more responsibility over time.


Learn to release your own fears by asking, "What's the worst that could happen?" If your daughter doesn't add her cereal to the shopping list, you won't buy it. She won't have it for a week. She'll complain, and you'll point to the shopping list on the fridge, and she'll remember to write it down the next time. Or she'll forget again, and she won't have it. Tragedy? Hardly.

Maybe she remembered to write the cereal on the list, and you've made her responsible for getting her own breakfast each morning. Maybe she's a little heavy-handed with the milk and it spills. Or maybe she forgets to close the cereal bag tightly, and now her flakes are floppy and stale. A minor inconvenience best suffered now. Rather that than she grow into adulthood with no idea of how products stay fresh or how spills are cleaned.


If your child consistently forgets homework papers at school and you run around night after night begging friends to fax or email you the work, you're enabling that behavior. Next time, sit down calmly with your child and explain, "We can't keep going on like this. I'm not angry with you, I'm just trying to help you understand how important it is for you to remember your homework. So I'm not going to get it for you. Instead, you'll write a note to your teacher explaining that you didn't do your homework because you forgot it in school." Now the action has a consequence--and a powerful one. Do this once, twice, maybe three times, and you'll see a dramatic drop-off in your child's forgetfulness.

Maybe the new rule is that you won't remind your 13-year-old to practice her piano lesson, so she doesn't bother all week. Then the teacher comes, and it's obvious that your child hasn't practiced all week. You can make her pay for the wasted lesson and write an apology to the teacher. Again, a consequence that is directly related to the action, and one that reinforces the lesson of responsibility that you're trying to teach.


Set honest expectations for and with your child. When you notice something working, say so. "I'm proud of you for remembering to practice your music lesson." "I'm impressed with the way you planned out how long it would take you to write that report." And when your child slips up--it's inevitable, after all--pick her up and dust her off, and send her back out into the world. "Wow, Mr. Evans was really unhappy with you for forgetting your homework. I guess that didn't feel too good. I bet you won't forget again, huh?"

Slowly, slowly, but ever so surely, your child will learn to take on more responsibility. And you can slowly life your hands from her shoulders and take tiny backwards steps, until your standing in the doorway, cheering her on from the side.

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