Parenting Solutions: Bringing Up a Responsible Child

Providing children opportunities and tools to learn responsibility helps them become self-sufficient and accountable for their actions as teenagers and adults.

Dirty dishes, unfolded laundry, scattered toys, and dusty furniture welcomed my husband home from work one day about two and a half years ago.

“What happened?” he exclaimed, surveying the scene. Our five children—the oldest, then 10; the youngest, 6 months—looked at me quizzically, too.

Suddenly, the quick thinking honed during a 15-year career in direct sales abandoned me.

“I didn’t get a chance to get it done?” I offered.

My husband looked puzzled for a moment, then his face softened. “Dearest, why are you doing it all yourself when you have five able bodies to help?” (Our 6-month-old, Heather, was off the hook; my husband was referring to himself and our four older children.)

It was one of those “ah-ha” moments in life. My husband was right. I liked to do everything myself—that way it got done fast and in the way I thought it should be done. That style had worked great before we had children. But now I was a home-schooling mom, committee member for my son’s Cub Scout pack, and chief housekeeper and cook. Things had been getting out of hand.

For too long, I had tried making life comfortable for my children while assuming all the household chores myself. Not only was I in danger of exhaustive overload, I was robbing our children of the opportunities to take responsibility for certain tasks. That was when I decided to set up standards of responsibility for our children.

Responsibility is a learned skill. Polly Crabtree, associate director for alumni and parent relations at the California State University campus in Chico, says it is a parent’s role, or that of a significant adult in a child’s life, to teach this critical skill early in life. Crabtree says youngsters who learn these skills will be more self-sufficient, less dependent, and more likely to take responsibility for their own actions as adults. Here are some ways to teach responsibility:

Increase expectations. As soon as a child can handle a task, let him to do it, says Thomas A. Posnanski, director of education for the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, Ill. “Have patience as a parent, being mindful instead of emotional,” he says.

Years ago, Posnanski heard his young sons arguing over a toy. He walked away to allow them to solve their differences. Without a parent’s help, the younger child used creative tactics, and the two worked out the problem on their own. The boys were learning to be responsible.

“Every situation is different and depends on the child,” Polly Crabtree says. By treating each child uniquely and giving more duties, you can assess what each can do, she says.

Marilyn Heins, M.D., a retired pediatrician in Tucson, Ariz., and author of ParenTips for Effective, Enjoyable Parenting (Development Publications, 1999), believes children need less stuff and more responsibility. This means doing chores and respecting the rules of the house, Dr. Heins says. “Parents need to understand their role of authority and have higher expectations of their children.”

Determine tasks. Crabtree recalled a serious issue with her then 5-year-old daughter about getting dressed in the morning. Their ideas of appropriate attire clashed. So Crabtree told her daughter that the youngster was responsible for choosing her own clothes the night before and getting approval.

“She knew if she didn’t do it the night before, then I would choose her outfit,” Crabtree says. The privilege to make the choice eliminated the battle. Sometimes her daughter didn’t feel like choosing or forgot to pick an outfit, so Crabtree followed through by telling her child what to wear.

For children of divorced parents who live in two households, irresponsibility can become a convenient excuse, Crabtree says.

“I left my math book at Dad’s house,” a child might say. Instead of taking the child to the father’s house to get the book, ask him what he can do to complete the assignment without the book. The parents need to communicate openly with each other and teach consequences for irresponsibility, Crabtree says.

Establish consequences. With supervision and encouragement, children age 6 to 10 learn to take care of themselves in such areas as personal hygiene, dressing, putting away their dinner plate, and picking up toys.

But what if your child ignores your directives? Crabtree advises telling the child that if he doesn’t start doing what he is asked to do, then privileges will be taken away. The consequence for not completing a task must be in place beforehand and followed through on a consistent basis.

“Children who are raised in a consequences-free environment never have the opportunity to learn how to take responsibility for their actions,” Crabtree says.

For example, if a child knows grades are important and habitually forgets to put a homework assignment in her backpack, the parent should not take the assignment to school beyond a certain number of times. The child needs to determine what she can do to remedy the mistake, which may mean accepting a lower grade.

The child who left the math book behind might have to call a classmate and copy the problems on paper. This takes time away from doing things he may want to do, and it also teaches responsibility.

Be supportive. Offer words of encouragement for resourcefulness and getting the job done. Posnanski explains that encouragement focuses on the child’s actions while praise judges the child’s goodness.

Communication with children can be difficult for parents, Posnanski observes. “Parents need to control and focus on what the child is doing right,” he adds. “Say five positive things for every corrective comment you make.”

When you give a child a new task, explain what is expected, then allow him to perform the steps. If a 6-year-old folds towels, focus on the uniquely shaped pile, not the uneven corners. If an 8-year-old scrubs the sink, notice the shiny faucet, not the leftover toothpaste smudge. If a 10-year-old prepares dinner, savor the flavor, not the appearance.

Lead the way. The best way for parents to encourage responsibility in children is to act responsibly in their presence.

A child’s mind is like a video recorder catching everything we do on tape, Dr. Heins says. Modeling responsibility means recognizing and acknowledging to your children when you make a mistake, she adds.

So what changes did I make with our children two and a half years ago? I started small, asking everyone to do his or her part in cleaning off the dinner table. (Before that, my husband and the kids had gone outside to play while Mom did it all herself.)

Within a month, each child was taking on some responsibility. After another five months, by expecting each child to complete certain daily chores, the house began to stay cleaner, and the atmosphere was much more enjoyable. Today, all our children willingly embrace their responsibilities, with even my 2-year-old closing drawers when she sees them open.

My husband no longer has to wonder: “What happened?”

Lynanne Lasota is a freelance writer in Queen Creek, Ariz. Her last article for Scouting, “Building a Child’s Personal Health Record,” appeared in the October 2006 issue.

Opportunities To Teach Responsibility

• Personal hygiene: washing hands, combing hair, brushing teeth, and dressing in clean clothes.

• Picking up: putting away toys, placing dirty dishes in the dishwasher, hanging clothes, and making the bed.

• Household chores: washing clothes, folding laundry, emptying the dishwasher, washing dishes, scrubbing the bathroom, vacuuming, dusting, putting out the trash, and feeding the pet.

• Chores outdoors: weeding, raking, sweeping, bringing in the newspaper, watering the plants, and washing the car.

• School: showing up for class on time, handing in the right assignment, and taking care of computer equipment.

• Scouting: keeping one’s uniform together, following the rules, learning skills, respecting others.

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