4. Always let children “do it myself” and “help,” even when it’s more work for you.
And it will always be more work for you. But toddlers want desperately to master their physical worlds, and when we support them to do that, they step into the responsibility of being “response-able.”
So instead of rushing through your list, reframe. You’re working with your child to help him discover the satisfaction of contribution. That’s more important than having the job done quickly or perfectly. Notice that you’re also bonding, which is what motivates kids to keep contributing.
5. Rather than simply giving orders, try asking your child to do the thinking.
For instance, to the dallying child in the morning, instead of barking “Brush your teeth! Is your backpack packed? Don’t forget your lunch!” you could ask, “What’s the next thing you need to do to get ready for school?”
The goal is to keep them focused on their list, morning after morning until they internalize it and begin managing their own morning tasks.
6. Provide routines and structure.
These are crucial in children’s lives for many reasons, not the least of which is that it gives them repeated opportunities to manage themselves through a series of not especially inviting tasks.
First, they master the bedtime routine and cleaning up toys and getting ready in the morning. Then they develop successful study habits and grooming habits. Finally, they learn basic life skills through repetition of household routines like doing laundry or making simple meals.
7. Teach your child to be responsible for her interactions with others.
When your daughter hurts her little brother’s feelings, don’t force her to apologize. She won’t mean it, and it won’t help him. Instead, listen to her feelings to help her work out those tangled emotions that made her snarl at him.
Then, once she feels better, ask her what she can do to make things better between them. Maybe she’ll be ready to apologize. But maybe that will feel like losing face, and she would rather repair things with him by reading him a story or helping him with his chore of setting the table, or giving him a big hug.
This teaches children that their treatment of others has a cost and that they’re responsible for repairs when they do damage. But because you aren’t forcing, she’s able to choose to make the repair, which makes it feel good, and makes her more likely to repeat it.
8. Support your child to help pay for damaged goods.
If kids help pay from their own allowance for lost library books and cell phones, windows broken by their baseball, or tools they’ve left out to rust, the chances of a repeat infraction are slim.
9. Don’t rush to bail your child out of a difficult situation.
Be available for problem solving, helping him work through his feelings and fears, and to ensure that he doesn’t just sidestep the difficulty. But let him handle the problem himself, whether it requires offering an apology or making amends in a more concrete way.
Be explicit about the responsible choices you’re making:
“It’s a pain to carry this trash till we get to the car, but I don’t see a trashcan and we never litter.”
“This sign says parking is reserved for handicapped people, so of course we can’t take that spot.”
Keep your promises to your child, and don’t make excuses. If you don’t follow through when you promise to pick up that notebook he needs for school or play that game with him on Saturday, why should he be responsible for keeping his promises and agreements with you?
11. Never label your child as “irresponsible”
Never label your child as “irresponsible,” because the way we see our kids is always a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, teach him the skills he needs to be responsible.
If he always loses things, for instance, help him develop the skills he needs. For instance, teach him to stop anytime he leaves somewhere—his friend’s house, school, soccer practice—and count off everything he needs to take home.
12. Teach your child to make a written schedule.
It may seem like overkill, but in our busy 21st-century lives, all kids need to master this skill by high school, or they simply won’t get everything done.
Begin on weekends during middle school, or earlier, if their schedule is busy. Just take a piece of paper, list the hours of the day on the left, and ask your child what he needs to get done this weekend. Put in the baseball game, piano practice, the birthday party, and all the steps of the science project—shop for materials, build the volcano, write and print out the description. Add in downtime—go for ice cream with dad, chill and listen to music.
Most kids find this keeps their stress level down since they know when everything will get done. Most important, it teaches them to manage their time and be responsible for their commitments.
13. All kids need the experience of working for pay.
All kids need the experience of working for pay, which teaches them real responsibility in the real world. Begin by paying your 8-year-old to do tasks you wouldn’t normally expect of him (washing the car, weeding the garden), then encourage him to expand to odd jobs in the neighborhood (walk the neighbor’s dog or offer snow shoveling service in the winter), move on to mother’s helper/babysitting jobs when it’s age appropriate, and finally take on after school or summer jobs. Few settings teach as much about responsibility as the world of working for pay outside the family.
14. Create a “no-blame household.”
We all, automatically, want to blame someone when things go wrong. It’s as if fixing blame might prevent a recurrence of the problem, or absolve us of responsibility.
In reality, blaming makes everyone defensive, more inclined to watch their back and to attack than to make amends. It’s the number one reason kids lie to their parents.
Worse yet, when we blame them, kids find all kinds of reasons it wasn’t really their fault—at least in their own minds—so they’re less likely to take responsibility and the problem is more likely to repeat.
Blame is the opposite of unconditional love.
So why do we do it? To help us feel less out of control, and because we can’t bear the suspicion that we also had some role, however small, in creating the situation.
Next time you find yourself automatically beginning to blame someone, stop. Instead, accept any responsibility you can—it’s good practice to model this by overstating your responsibility, without beating yourself up. Then, just accept the situation. You can always come up with better solutions from a state of acceptance than a state of blame.
15. Teach your kids that, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, they not only have the right to be an individual, they have an obligation to be one.
Studies show that people who take responsibility in any given situation are people who see themselves as willing to be different and stand out.
That’s the kind of kid you want to raise.