As parents, we are each working to raise responsible adults. This is not usually the first thing on our minds when we have really little children. We are focused on keeping them healthy and happy. Even with little kids though, we can start teaching personal responsibility. Understanding how to be responsible is important to living a happy, healthy lifestyle. It may take a little tweaking to our thinking and parenting style, but we can teach responsibility to our kids so that they can joyfully thrive in our schools and our communities.
What exactly do we mean by responsibility?
Responsibility is officially defined as the state of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone, the state of being accountable or to blame for something, and the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization.
In our real life we need to break that definition down into actionable items. We want kids who know what is expected of them, who are willing and able to fulfill those expectations, and who are willing to admit it when they don’t. We want kids who can tell themselves what to do and then to do it.
Before children can “act independently” or “make decisions without authorization,” they must be taught how to do so. This begins with us as parents. Often, we expect kids to just know. We think that we have given clear instructions. Or we explain something so thoroughly that we have complicated the instructions.
It’s important for us to give our kids simple, clear instructions. Clear instructions include a clear, direct request for what we would like to be done, along with when and how if necessary. If we add in what we do not want to be done, we confuse things. If we only imply that something ought to be done, we have not been clear.
The idea of expectations goes beyond moment-by-moment instructions. Our kids should have clear expectations for their general behavior, for specific situations, and for daily routines. We have episodes of Signing Time that can help you and your children discuss daily routines and upcoming social situations. Repeated situations and daily life should hold some kind of standard behavioral expectations. This is the daily struggle of parenting: repeat, repeat, repeat. Stick with it! And let’s resolve as often as necessary to repeat ourselves with clarity and patience. Daily…or even hourly.
When facing a new or different situation, ask your kids, “What are three things I can expect of you while we are here?” If they need help, ask additional questions. “Why are we here?” or “Whose birthday is it?” or “What do you think we should not do here?” can help get their minds going. Let them set the expectations. And have them work on only a few at a time. As you remind them of the expectations that they set, you’re likely to have more buy-in on their part. And because they came up with the expectations, they are more willing to hold themselves to them. This helps to teach responsibility.
When your kids come up with expectations to follow, let them know what great thoughts they had. When they do what is expected, thank them. Let them know that you appreciate their effort. Let them know where you saw them exercise self-control or where they accepted a correction with a good attitude.
While it is important for our kids to learn to be responsible in everyday life without expecting praise, they need praise from us while they are learning. Children often complain that their parents don’t notice all the things that they do, only the things they haven’t done.
Everyone needs encouragement. Let’s balance out our criticism with gratitude. This will help to develop responsibility in our kids.
Part of setting expectations and giving instructions is following up on those items. We have to check and make sure things have been done. We have to evaluate how we did on our expectations after an event or outing.
And we have to have consequences. Consequences should not be harsh, but they should be firm and provide teaching. In real life, if I am late, the store will close and I will not be allowed to shop. Hopefully, I will learn from this and arrive earlier next time. This is learning from a natural consequence. As often as possible, help your kids to see the natural consequences of their choices and actions. When necessary, provide consequences that fit the situation. For example, if a child goes over his video game time, he has used up that much time from his next video game time. If a child takes something, a related consequence would be giving something.
Let your kids help come up with consequences. They will often be more strict than you expect, and they will have more buy-in if they are part of the process. It also really helps them to know the consequences ahead of time. This is not always possible, but consequences can be part of setting expectations. There are, of course, other times that we are dealing with a situation which we did not discuss ahead of time. In these situations, it’s often better for the parent to decide the consequence.
Support them when they mess up
Our kids are not going to be perfect. When they mess up or make a poor decision, we as parents will teach responsibility not by blaming our kids, but by helping our kids take the blame. Mistakes can come with big emotions. Let’s be supportive of our kids as they learn that it is safe and normal to mess up, accept the blame, and make it right. Kids are much more likely to admit their fault if we as parents make it safe to do so. Growth does not come from negativity or shame. Let’s help them see this process as objectively as we can. We can support their learning and growing.
Adjust for different ages
Teaching responsibility can be adjusted for the different ages of our kids. Even a toddler can set one expectation, maybe the same one expectation for a while until she has accomplished it. Older kids can do more. But we can teach personal responsibility all through our children’s lives.
We have lots of fun videos and songs that you can use to teach young children about responsibility at home and at school. The song In a House tells about all the people in a house, but especially that there’s me, me, me. Our song My House reviews all the chores and responsibilities that exist in every room of your house! You can sing and sign with your kids that “this is their house too”, everyone in our house has a place and a responsibility.