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How to Teach Your Kids Responsibility

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

Part of parenting is asking yourself (and everyone around you) a constant barrage of questions, including, “How to teach your kids responsibility?”

The answers to this will vary immensely depending on who you ask, and how they were taught (or not taught) responsibility.

This is yet another demonstration of how parenting is confusing! However, teaching your child responsibility doesn’t have to be some convoluted lesson. It happens naturally over time!

These steps will help you set up a foundation that will help your kid grow to be a responsible adult.

Start with agreeing on a definition for responsible

Obedience is not the same as responsible. Sure, we wish our kids would do what we tell them for a variety of reasons, but don’t confuse following directions with responsibility.

Responsibility is a lifelong skill that your children will need to have healthy relationships and thriving careers. No parent wants their adult children to grow up and practice blind obedience.

Responsibility means can other people count on you? This means you are dependable and do what you say you are going to do. You keep your word, even when it doesn’t benefit you at the moment.

Another way people show responsibility is by doing their best and giving things an honest effort. Responsible people can accept credit for the things they do right and acknowledge their mistakes.

Another hallmark of a responsible person is their function within the community (or family). These members of the community take ownership of their surroundings and help others to the best of their ability.

Teach your child responsibility by modeling these behaviors

One of the best ways to teach your kids responsibility is to model the behaviors in your daily interactions. Did you tell your child something and then keep your word? Does your child watch you try your best when you face a challenge? How do you react to praise, or when you make a mistake?

When your child makes a mistake, do you hold them accountable or try to minimize where they went wrong? Are you offering praise and encouragement when they do the right thing?

The adage “Do what I say, not what I do,” is not the best way to teach your child responsibility. If you want them to become responsible adults, then it is important they see you being one as well.

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“Let your child see you doing a good deed instead of you telling him or her to do it, and the little child shall one day grow up to become a real kind human being.” ― Abhijit Naskar, Human Making is Our Mission: A Treatise on Parenting

Balance your involvement in helping your child become responsible

Depending on the age of your children, they might require more or less guidance when it comes to learning responsibility. Very young children might still require prompting to say “I’m sorry.” They might also benefit from things like chore charts and stickers.

Parents have to understand that being responsible, though, by the virtue of the definition must come from how the child is. Picture it: they are responsible for cleaning their room, and they spend thirty minutes in their actively doing so—only for you to walk in and think it’s still a disaster.

Pause for just a moment. Did your child try their best? Praise them for it, and then ask if they need a little help to finish. Show them what they may have missed in a kind way that sets your expectations without diminishing their efforts.

Now, if this child is a teenager, who you know is capable, and aware of how their room should look, and just tried to get away with doing the bare minimum, then hold them accountable a little more firmly.

The bottom line here is that it comes down to managing and enabling too much so they don’t fail… or not offering enough help and support because they need to learn responsibility. Consider their age, their past behavior, their ability, and their temperament before choosing where your happy medium is.

Let your child fail

This one is so tough. No parent likes to let their kid fail, especially when we can help it. But failing is an important part of life and happens to all of us, so kids need to experience it too.

When my daughter was little and would forget something she needed for school from the house, I would bring it no matter what I was doing. Along with some words about, “Mom’s not always going to be available to bring you your things. These are your responsibilities, so please try to remember your stuff when you leave.”

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When she got older, I stopped bringing everything when she asked (depending on what it was, and the real impact of whether she had it). I offered her tools like setting out everything you need the night before, getting out of bed 15 minutes earlier so you aren’t rushing, and putting a note by the door, etc.

She got much better, but you know what? She is human! There are still times when she forgets things. Now, I don’t drop what I am doing to get it to her, but if I am home and able, I bring it. Even responsible people need a hand now and then.

My thought process is no longer about how much trouble will she be in without this thing, or will she get a poor grade? Those are her consequences. My only thought process when deciding to help her now is, “can I stop what I am doing and bring her this without causing unnecessary stress for myself.”

“If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” — Abigail Van Buren

Be mindful of teaching them “too much” responsibility

One thing I learned from trying to teach my children responsibility is that there is such a thing as too much. When our oldest was little and trying out various sports and activities, I always told her she couldn’t quit in the middle because she had made a commitment to the team.

This seemed reasonable to me at the time. However, now that she is older, she has this mindset of not being able to quit anything—ever. Even when she is struggling to juggle too much or genuinely unhappy.

I have done a lot of my own personal growth over the years and learned to focus on my mental health. These lessons directly conflict with what I spent years teaching her. She doesn’t shy away from saying, “Mom, you told me I can’t quit things, so I don’t understand why you are trying to get me to quit now.” Dang, it.

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I should have focused on why she wanted to quit and taught her the difference between just being flaky and looking out for your sanity. So, the lesson here is more for parents. Responsibility is good, but not at the detriment of your child’s stress level. It is ok to walk away from things that don’t serve us anymore.

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” — Peggy O’Mara

Tips for teaching your kids responsibility

With all that being said, there are a few simple tips you can use to teach your child responsibility. Teach them to set limits and know when to say no. Make sure they learn how to set their own expectations and boundaries.

Let your very young kids do things for themselves when they want to. Make sure they have some sort of structure and routine in their day.

Focus on finding opportunities as a family to give back to the community. Help them find a way they can make a meaningful impact in someone else’s life.

Teach them about money, and give them extra things they can do that they can earn money for. Help foster their ideas to make their own money, too! My daughter has painted pictures for people, sold her clothes on consignment, and found random ways to increase her income—and her entrepreneurial spirit.

Parenting is hard

We all want our kids to grow up and be good people. We want them to be happy and successful, and being responsible is a big part of that.

There is no simple answer for any parenting question, and it often comes down to balancing multiple complex emotions. Do your best! Seek advice when you need it from other parents. There is no shame in admitting we sometimes need help.

Love them, model the behaviors you want to see, and teach them that being themselves is enough. There are no perfect parents, no perfect children, and no perfect people. That’s ok and it is what makes us all unique and special.

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